Medical Practice Staff Can Help Prevent Patient Lawsuits

May 21, 2014
Beth A. Balen

Happy patients are less likely to sue your practice. Develop your patient-staff relationships to keep them content.

As medical practice professionals we have pretty good insight on how to judge whether we receive quality medical care when we go to the doctor; but it has long been my belief that our patients really have no idea how to do that. For instance, they may think they got great care because they saw the doctor and promptly had surgery or were given a prescription for antibiotics. My question is: What if they really did not need surgery or antibiotics? In many cases the patient does not really know and judges quality only because the doctor didsomething.

Another area where I believe patients judge quality is their relation with practice staff. They may judge how good their care was by whether the front-desk person was nice to them, or if their bill got messed up. I also believe that given a negative outcome, like unsuccessful surgery, a positive relationship with the doctor's staff may have a big impact on whether patients sue.

Personally, I almost left my long-time eye doctor's practice when he hired a front-desk person who was unbelievably rude. What if that person had been hired in the middle of my recovery from a surgery I was having a difficult time with?

So what can you do to ensure your employees are helping prevent malpractice lawsuits? Here's my list:

1. Hire the right people. I have another strong belief that, with clerical staff anyway, it is just as important to hire people with good customer service skills as it is to hire someone with experience - maybe more so. You can teach someone how to make appointments, but you probably cannot teach them to be nice, or to have a positive attitude about problem solving. I think those are attributes that some people have and others do not, and I personally do not want people who do not have those skills in my practice. When calling references or interviewing be sure to hone in on answers that might indicate what kind of customer service skills candidates have, as much as their technical and professional skills.

2. Train well. Once you have hired those right people you need to train them thoroughly in the mission and attitudes of your practice. Make sure they understand operating procedures, how to handle complaints, and the limits of their job, licensure, and training. The wonderful and empathetic person you just hired, who makes all the patients love him, may get you into trouble if he does not understand his limits. Mission and vision may sound like nuisance words, but employees need that kind of information to guide them. And empower them to act within those guidelines.

3. Work as a team. While you do not want your front-desk person giving nursing advice, make sure that employees have a general understanding of what other staff members do, so they can minimize patient hand-offs. For example a front-desk person should have at least a rudimentary knowledge of billing so that when patients have basic billing questions they do not need to be referred to the billing department. Patients get impatient when it seems like no one can answer their questions.

4. Reward excellence. Once you find good staff, work to keep them! Pay competitively, foster teamwork, praise liberally, discipline as necessary, and listen to suggestions and other input that staff might offer. While employees definitely worry about their paycheck, it's really more about feeling like a member of the team - that will make a big difference in whether they stay with your practice. It is my own personal bias that employees will treat your patients no better than you treat them - so treat them well.

5. Invest in training. Most malpractice companies offer free staff training on risk prevention and patient relations. I think it is worth it to annually close the practice for a half-day to have your carrier come in and do a session for the staff. They may listen to someone from the outside better than they do you and their supervisors, even if the trainer says exactly the same thing.

Beth A. Balen, MBA, FACMPE, has over 25 years of experience in the healthcare field, including 17 years as an orthopedic practice administrator. She is currently living in Arvada, Colo., and works as an independent medical practice consultant. You can contact her at beth.balen@yahoo.com.