Doctor Patient Relations

Turn Angry Patients Into Practice Advocates

By Sharon Carter

You have an opportunity to be a hero every time an angry patient walks through your door. Turning that patient’s anger into happiness can yield a patient who will stick with you long-term and become an advocate for your practice.

Create a Bank
of Best Practices

About 90 percent of the time, the anger patients feel is due to miscommunication with staff.

To make these miscommunications less likely, implement a protocol to learn from your mistakes.

After thedissatisfied patient issue has been resolved, have the staffer who resolved it document the issue, the cause of the issue and how it was resolved.

In the next staff meeting, talk about the problem and the outcome and what could have been donedifferently to prevent the problem in the first place.

Ask staffers to offer up their top ideas for preventing theproblem. Then, choose the best idea to keep on file, along with what to do if the problem arises anyway.

You will have created a go-to bank of best practices in patient relations, along with a file of quick fixes that can serve as job aids to staffers faced with angry patients.

Train and Empower a Problem-Solving Staffer
When a patient storms into your practice, furious that she rushed to get to her 3 p.m. appointment only to find herself waiting until 3:45, the worst offense is the pass-along. The first person she speaks with passes her onto another staffer, and then that staffer will pass her onto yet another staffer.

Instead, that furious patient should be sent immediately to a staffer trained to handle angry patients, and, most importantly, with the authority to take action to resolve the upsetting situation. They should be authorized, for instance, to give full refunds,distribute gift cards or negotiate with the lab to rush jobs.

Ideally, the staff member you choose as problem-solver will have natural abilities at calming angry people. They also should be trained by role-playing exercises on what to expect and how to handle anger. The procedure you teach them should then be scripted so they, and future problem-solvers, have a provenformula to fall back on. Train them, for example, to focus first on listening to the irate patient. These people often are frustrated because they feel that they haven’t been listened to, or that previous staff members who listened to them didn’t care about their problem.

To communicate that the patient’s complaints are being heard and taken seriously, the staffer should take notes while the patient is talking, and not interrupt them. They also can recap what the patient told them to ensure they have understood the complaint accurately, which will emphasize to the patient that their message is finally sinking in. You can sometimes slow the anger to almost nothing if you let them vent.

“We Will Find a Solution”
After the staffer has reassured the patient thatthey understand why the patient is upset, the staffer should tell them that a solution will be found, andthat they will fix the situation. Fixing the situation doesn’t necessarilymean that your practice will be able to deliver what the patient is asking for. It means that you will come up with a way to make them happy so that they leave youroffice satisfied.

Recently, at a practice I consult with, ahusband and wife came in very angered. They had placed a $1,400 order for two pairs of premium eyeglasses.The practice promised them the eyeglasses would be ready to pick up within a week. That timing was essential becausethey were planning toleave town on vacation, and wanted to be able to wear their new glasseson their trip. Two weeks later, the glassesstill weren’t ready, and the couplewas about to go on their trip. They were outraged, accused the practice of lying to them and demanded their money back unless the practice could get them the glasses in time for their trip.

As the problem-solver that day, I first called the lab to see if it would be possible tohave theglasses readyin time for the couple’s vacation.When the lab told meit was not possible, I asked that the lab comp the lenses to the practice since the lab was taking longer than usual to make the glasses. With the lenses comped,Itold thepatients that though it wasn’t possible to have the glasses they orderedready in time for their trip, I would have them ready for them when they got back, and theywould be discounted 50 percent on their purchase. In the meantime, I offered to havenew eyeglasses made for them for freeas a rush order, cut from stock lenses, so they wouldat least have eyeglasses with their new prescription to wear on their trip.

The patients were happy because thatmeant they wouldend up better off than they started out. They would have new eyeglasses for their trip, which theywould get for free, plus the premium glasses they ordered at 50 percent off.Since the lab comped the practice for the premium lenses, while the practice only reduced the cost on them by 50 percent, theystill made a profit, even factoring in the free inexpensiverush-order glasses cut from stock lenses.

But the more important question: How much it would have cost the practice to do nothing? The answer is it would have cost them two patients with a record of purchasing premium eyeglasses. Plus, potentially, their friends and family, too, since it is likely they would have voiced their unhappiness with the practice to their personal network.

“We Want You to Leave Happy”
Sometimes, as illustrated in the example I just shared, it is possible to make the patient’s day with your solution. Other times, you may avert a public relations disaster by offering the patient a full refund, but the situation isn’t ideal because you weren’t able to deliver a solution to the patient that made their day. When that happens, I recommend acknowledging your practice’s disappointment at not making that patient happy and then offering a consolation gift card.

“Our goal is to exceed your expectations, and since we were not able to do that, we’re going to give you your money back,” your staffer should explain to the patient forwhom no adequate fix other than a refund was found. And before that patient leaves: “We want our patients toleave herehappy. Here’s a $50 gift card for two to have dinner on us.”

Talk the Talk

Irate patients require the right approach from optical staff to leave your practice in abetter frame of mind. Here are possible scripts to have your staff role-play.

Apologize, Offer Solution and Consolation for Trouble
Patient: I’ve been waiting here for over an hour for my appointment. I rushed here to get here on time–I even left work early–and an hour later I’m still waiting. This is the last time I come here.

Staff: I’m sorry, Mrs. Smith. That shouldn’t have happened, and is our mistake. I will arrange for you to see the doctor as soon as possible, and for your trouble, we won’t charge you for the exam today.

Work With Patient to Correct Error
Patient: These frames aren’t what I ordered. They don’t look like the ones I tried on. The color is darker and they look bigger than I expected. You must havetaken down the wrong order. This really screws me up. I was planning to wear my new glasses to my son’s wedding next week.

Staff: I’m sorry, Mrs. Smith. I understand, and will fix this situation for you. We’ll go to the dispensary together, and you can show me the frames you have in mind, and we’lldo our best to have yourlenses fitted in the new frames in time for yourson’s wedding. If, for any reason, we are not able to have them ready in time, we willgive you 50 percent off the glasses, and give you something to wear in the meantime.

Turn around poor customer service
Patient: Your receptionist was rude to me, and snapped at me. Iwant to take back myglasses order and cancelmy follow-up visit. I want nothing moreto dowith this office.

Staff: I’m very sorry, Mrs. Smith. You shouldn’t have been treated that way, and we will speak to the receptionist about it.We value you as a patient and hope you will reconsider. To make it up to you,your next visit ison us, and wewill discount yourglasses fifty percent.We feel just terrible. Please accept this $50 gift card with our sincerest apology.

Related ROB Articles

Measure Patient Satisfaction, Learn How to Grow Patient Loyalty

Patient Refunds=Prime Opportunities to Build Patient Loyalty

Sharon Carter of Eye Care Optometric Consulting in Waldo, Ark., specializes in finding solutions to improve patient-practice communications. She currently works with 28 practices across the country, and speaks regularly on best practices in patient-staff relations. To contact her:

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