When a Patient Has a Gripe

August 31, 2010
Michael Sheehan

When faced with unhappy or even angry patients, some doctors may try to sweep the complaints under the rug. That's a bad idea. There is a definite correlation between the number of complaints and the number of malpractice suits.

When faced with unhappy or even angry patients, some doctors may try to sweep the complaints under the rug. That’s a bad idea, according to practice management experts. Left unanswered, a minor dissatisfaction could lead to a malpractice suit. A Vanderbilt University study found that there was definite correlation between the number of complaints and the number of malpractice suits.

Some of the common issues that can trigger a patient complaint are lengthy waits for an appointment, hours spent in waiting rooms and examining rooms, lack of communication, billing issues, and delays in getting test results. Many of these complaints are preventable and doctors can take positive steps to keep them to a minimum.

The key is to respect the patient, which includes protecting their privacy and regarding their time as valuable. To keep noncompliance to a minimum, communicate what treatment you’re recommending clearly and explain why you’re suggesting it. Review your scheduling policies if keeping patients waiting becomes an issue. To prevent misunderstandings about billing, avoid surprises. If you require co-pays at the time of treatment or charge a fee for a no-show, let the patient know that, preferably when the first appointment is scheduled.

A simple apology can be the solution to handling many of these complaints. Studies show, for example, that a patient who has been through a long wait to see you appreciates an apology and often considers the matter closed. Handling other kinds of gripes, though, can get complex. Your office should have a clear policy about how to handle complaints. As part of that policy, staff should be instructed to relay all serious complaints to you, including any threats of litigation.