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Make the most of patient complaints and compliments by communicating carefully with your team
A patient storms out, angry over the way her doctor dismissed her concern. Your practice gets a bumper crop of holiday cards this year, praising staff for providing top-notch care. And a quick scan of the online ratings sites reveals some surprising new insights as to how your bathrooms and waiting area are perceived.
Indeed, feedback on the patient experience filters in from all directions. Solicited or not, it has the power to shape process improvement in your practice. But it will never become a catalyst for change unless you share it with your staff. "A patient's perception is their reality," says Mark Huizenga, a medical practice consultant in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Practices need to recognize that customer service today is critical."
When it's negative
The manner in which you share patient feedback with your team depends on what was said, says Cissy Bowden, administrator of Orthopedic Associates in Augusta, Ga. When it's negative, and an apology to the patient is in order, it's best to call the staff member into your office to address the matter privately. "Complaints about a staff member should always be shared in private, never in front of the staff," says Bowden. "I always get their side of the story, too."
Give your employee an opportunity to offer his account of what took place, she says, and come up with a solution to address it together. Ask how the employee can handle the same situation differently the next time around. Should he call the patient personally to apologize or would it be better received coming from you? When it's a physician, of course, the matter is more delicate. But Huizenga says it still must be addressed. After all, he notes, practices are no longer in a position to dismiss even a single customer service complaint.
"A 90 percent satisfaction rate is just not good enough anymore," he says. "Payers are going to be looking at quality metrics in the future and many already are. The degree of patient satisfaction is highly correlated to the perceived quality that's been delivered and that will impact your bottom line."
When a complaint is more minor, but worthy of note, it's often more effective to share it at the next staff meeting - without disclosing names, says Huizenga. "You can say, 'Last week a situation happened that was really disappointing,'" he says. "The person involved knows who they are anyway, but that way it becomes a learning experience for the group rather than a negative."
Though the feedback from her customer satisfaction surveys is overwhelmingly positive, Sheresa Flack, office manager for Rawlins Family Medical in Rawlins, Wyo., says she rallies the troops whenever a negative comment trickles in. "We have meetings with everyone on staff to brainstorm ways that we can improve the situation together," she says. "We try to stay focused on the positive." Most recently, her staff helped revise the patient scheduling system to reduce wait times - the chief complaint among patients. Patients are now funneled into specific exam rooms, based on the equipment needed for their visit, which helps speed things along. Whether the brainstorming sessions result in an immediate solution or not, however, Flack says such meetings still benefit the group. "I think it's really important to let the staff know that I am monitoring what's happening," she says. "So just because I'm not right there doesn't mean I'm not going to find out about it."
If the complaint is recurring and more systemic, Huizenga suggests a strategic planning retreat with all the decision makers in your group. "I just had an experience with a practice that had seen a drop off in patient volume and they weren't sure why, but after an inspection of the ratings sites we found a lot of negative comments about the staff and the doctors," he says. "Their culture was really slated toward making physicians money and forgetting about customer service." The physicians and administrator discussed what was working and what was not at a weekend retreat, and hammered out the details of a new mission statement that made customer service priority number one.
Say it loud
There should be nothing private about sharing positive feedback, of course. The next time a patient sings the praises of one of your staff members, or the entire office, be sure to trumpet that sentiment loud and clear. There's nothing more morale building than recognizing your staff for a job well done, says Huizenga. If it's an e-mail or note card sent in about a specific staff member, do one better. "Post those notes in the break room for everyone to see and recognize that person in front of their peers at your next staff meeting," says Huizenga. You might also consider doling out small rewards, like gift cards to the movies or a local restaurant, or even an IOU for a half day off, to show your appreciation. "Those things mean a lot," says Huizenga. They also help solidify the message that management values customer service, he says.
Survey results are a different story. Whether you conduct patient satisfaction surveys on your own, or mine the online ratings sites for scorecards and comments, such feedback should be organized and collected for everyone on staff to review. For her part, Bowden receives feedback on a quarterly basis from the third-party vendor who conducts the practice's patient satisfaction surveys. All anonymous comments, for better or worse, are posted in the break room. "Most comments are very positive, but some are negative and I think it's important for everyone to see those, too," says Bowden. Such feedback is particularly valuable because it helps paint a picture for your staff of what your patients value most - their time, a clean waiting room, a good bedside manner.
Patient feedback, both complimentary and critical, can be a powerful tool for positive change. By sharing such comments with your staff and focusing on the learning opportunities they provide, you can help your staff make the connection between how they interact with your patients and customer satisfaction.
Shelly K. Schwartz, a freelance writer in Maplewood, N.J., has covered personal finance, technology, and healthcare for more than 17 years. Her work has appeared on CNBC.com, CNNMoney.com, and Bankrate.com. She can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Physicians Practice.