One Way to Spot Interpersonal Mistakes That Can Harm Medical Practices

March 19, 2014

Sometimes physicians and staff are so wrapped up in the pressures of their work that they overlook obvious missteps when interacting with patients.

When you understand a situation from the inside, it is often difficult to understand an outsider's perspective. In a medical practice, for instance, physicians and staff are completely aware of their workloads and the challenges they face, but the patient's point of view? Not so much. 

Yesterday, I had an encounter with a different type of professional that will help illustrate the point.

I have used the same CPA firm for a very long time, and the senior partner is a personal friend. I was not thrilled to have my tax business handed off to an associate, but I understood. My financial affairs are plain vanilla, but just complicated enough that I feel the need for professional advice.

The new relationship has deteriorated as the associate's practice has grown. I do not feel I can complain to my friend, so things cannot get better. At the same time, I remain personally loyal to my friend and do not have the time to scout and vet a new CPA.
Yesterday I delivered my 2013 tax information (I know it is kind of late, but I'd never been given a deadline). I received this response:

"Hi Carol!! Thanks for sending. … Also, have I sent to you our 2013 client tax letter (via e-mail) that contains reminders for 2013 and a brief summary of the new tax laws etc.? We are working with a significant backlog right now due to IRS’ late release of the new Obamacare forms and the complexity of the new laws and as such, many clients sending data to us past about 3/1 will need to get extended. I’ll do what I can but many clients will need to get extended this year in order for us to have adequate time to reduce tax burden as low as possible and leave no stone unturned. I’ll be back in touch once I’ve had a chance to review the info!
Thanks Carol, Happy St. Patty’s Day! Have a great weekend!"

Can you see what's wrong with this message? I count six faux pas that can relate directly to patient encounters:
1. The exclamation marks. Really? Is this person a grownup or a teenager? I know he expects me to treat him seriously, but this does not set the right tone. Additionally, it will be even more jarring when he switches to business.
2. He asks: "Have I sent you information you probably need?" The answer is "No." He's hammering home the point that I am not on his radar.
3. He says: "We are really busy." Who isn't? The message is that his problems are more important than mine, but who is paying whom?
4. He places blame. I might be more accepting if he had said something along the lines that the office has had trouble assimilating all of the changes on a short time line. I am not at all assuaged when he places all the blame on the IRS. Did he not expect them to be late in releasing forms? This is not his first tax season.
5. He implies: We may not be able to take care of you any time soon; and it is actually your fault because you didn't make my deadline.  He never gave me a deadline. A subsequent e-mail noted that March 1 has been the internal deadline for years. Announcing the deadline would probably have gone a long way toward compliance with it.
6. He closes with: "Have a great weekend!" Now he wants to be friends. There's no way my attitude is going to turn on a dime.

While writing this is helping me vent my frustration, I hope it serves a broader purpose.

My experience illustrates how sometimes we (consultants, physicians, healthcare staff, and even accountants) become so wrapped up in our own stuff that we fail to recognize obvious interpersonal mistakes we are making.

Every now and then, it's important to take a step back to assess how your practice is operating, and the messages you are sending to patients.

Also, always keep your eyes open. When you notice interpersonal or operational failures in other professional environments, such as I did with my accountant, consider whether your practice is making similar mistakes - and fix them.