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The United Airlines Debacle: 4 Lessons for Doctors


United Airlines unceremoniously booted a physician off his flight and in the process unintentionally taught practices a few valuable lessons.

Welcome to Editor's Corner. Here, the editors of Physicians Practice will share their thoughts on the happenings in healthcare and look at the industry from a broader viewpoint.

By now you've surely heard about the passenger that was thrown off the United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville.

If you've somehow missed the story, and really it seems impossible based on the coverage this thing has gotten, United overbooked a flight and had to remove four passengers involuntarily. Three passengers left willingly, but one of them, a doctor by the name of David Dao, said he couldn't leave, he had to be at a hospital in the morning to take care of patients. When Dao refused to leave the plane, United called Chicago Aviation officers who forcibly dragged him off the plane.

The story somehow has gone from "bad" to "worse" to "incredibly damaging" to "will they ever recover?" for United. It started out as an ugly incident captured on video about something 99.99 percent of the population hates - overbooking. Then it was discovered that the passenger was a doctor who needed to take care of patients. To make matters worse, the overbooking occurred because United needed to accommodate their own employees over paying customers. Then the CEO of United offered a lame, non-apology seemingly doubling down on the actions taken against Dr. Dao, which pissed people off even more. 

Suddenly, we had a full-on uproar on our hands. At a time when people are more divided than ever, it seems everyone had come to an agreement: We're united against United Airlines. Suddenly this little worm of a story taken from someone's cell phone video had blossomed into an absolute disaster for United. Currently, #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos is trending on Twitter.

The person who once said, there is no such thing as bad publicity hasn't run through the #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos hashtag on Twitter. If that doesn't convince you, maybe the fact that United's stock has plummeted nearly 4 percent and wiped out $830 million in its market cap will.

Observing this story from my desk, I couldn't help but think physician practices and the lessons they could gleam from United's major mishap. Here are a few morals of the story for all of you out there that wonder how this could ever happen to you:

1. You are always on camera. I'd wager that almost every single adult that walks into your practice has a cell phone with the ability to record your worst misdeeds. Let's say you try to throw out an unruly patient - well the patient could record you trying to throw them out. Maybe it's unfair if there is no context, but if people see you acting poorly, they won't care. You tried to throw out someone who was sick. You'll be the villain and suddenly:

2. You'll have a hard time getting your side across. I'm no PR expert, but United's biggest mistake was trying to justify the behavior by calling the passenger belligerent. If the CEO had just come across as more apologetic, vowed to review and reform the overbooking policy, and made things right with Dr. Dao, it's possible the damage would have been less severe. Instead, he threw gasoline on the fire, to quote an actual PR expert. If this happens to you, sometimes it's better to quit when you already way behind.

3. If people hate a policy already, an incident surrounding that policy is potentially explosive. There is not a person in the world that likes when airlines overbook planes. So of course when something like this happens because of overbooking, it's only going to enliven people even more. If they threw Dr. Dao off the plane because of something he did, there is a much smaller chance this story goes viral like it did.

Of course, overbooking isn't limited to the airline industry. Some physician offices overbook because sometimes patients will miss an appointment. If you overbook, consider dropping the policy. Overbooking leads to crowded waiting rooms and pissed off patients. It could also lead to a damaging incident that goes viral and turns you into the bad guy. And consider this advice for any unpopular policy you have, see how important it really is and if it's worth a public relations nightmare. Instead…

4. Find another way. For physician practices, instead of overbooking, you can create a policy to charge patients who miss appointments and use the extra time to catch up. For United, they probably should have just kept upping the ante to get someone to leave the plan. Reportedly, they offered $800 and a hotel voucher worth $200. What's more valuable: $1000 or the $830 million in market cap and irreparable harm you've done to your brand? I think they could have spared an extra $500.

There is always a solution that can resolve your unpopular policy rather than just enforcing the policy and suddenly having your practice trending on Twitter for the wrong reasons.

Follow Gabriel Perna on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna or leave a comment below.

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