Sunday, February 06, 2011

Every complaint is a gift - Dr Malpani's guide for doctors handling patient complaints

Most doctors get put off by patients who complain and most doctors will either ignore these patients – or fire them ! While I’d rather have smiling and happy patients as well , I also believe that every complaint is a gift – it’s a chance to learn and improve. In fact, we actively encourage our patients to provide us with feedback – and both compliments and complaints are welcome . Compliments give us a high and tell us we are doing a good job. Complaints remind us that we can do better !

As a doctor, I am focused on providing high quality medical care to my patients. However, I also run a clinic, and I may not see some basic problems ( which are easy to fix) unless someone takes the trouble to point them out to me !

Most patients are quite reluctant to complain to their doctor. For one, most are respectful and are quite grateful for the medical attention and care they are getting. They feel they should not be wasting their doctor’s time on minor trifles. Also, many are worried that if they complain, the doctor may get upset and may not provide them with good medical care. This is why most patients are docile and compliant in the clinic. However, when they leave the clinic, they will then openly criticize the doctor – an unhelpful approach , which does not help either the doctor or the patient !

I encourage patients to provide feedback to doctors – after all, if there are problems and you do not tell us about them, how will we improve ? However, not all complaints are helpful, so if you do want to provide constructive complaints, you must learn the right way of doing so. There’s no point in complaining when you are angry and upset. This might seem counter-intuitive, but this is the time when you are likely to say things you may regret later ! It’s best to complain when you are cool and collected – and when your doctor also has time to sit and listen to your feedback. Providing written feedback is also useful, if you are willing to take the time and
trouble . However, complaining behind the doctor’s back is very unhelpful !

Just like patients need to learn how to complain, doctors also need to learn how to listen to their patient’s complaints in a mature fashion. This is a useful skill for all doctors to acquire. Remember that for every one patient who complaints, ten will get upset – but rather than take the time to complain, will just walk out of your practice to your next door competitor !

Complaints should not be ignored – they need to be managed. Your patient is your customer, and you owe him a duty of service ! When dealing with angry unhappy patients, it’s very easy for problems to escalate , and when tempers are lost, everyone stands to lose. Often doctors do not have the maturity to listen calmly to a patient’s complaints. Many will take a complaint as a personal affront – and will feel the patient is disparaging them . Others may even get incensed – “ How dare a patient criticize me ! After all, I am a senior , respected and experienced doctor who knows much more than he does ! “ If you do not manage angry patients well, this will end up hurting you in the long run. Angry patients may end up suing a doctor – especially when they feel the doctor has been uncaring or rude.

Listen patiently and respectfully. It’s true that not all complaints are valid and not all problems can be fixed, but giving the upset patient a patient hearing can make a world of a difference !
When a patient complains, rather than getting angry or defensive, a useful acronym to remember is LEAD - L = Listen ; E= Empathise ; A= Act ; D= Document. When do patients complain ? When there is a mismatch between expectations and reality. This is why it’s so important to be honest and transparent with your patients.

I always tell my patients – If you are happy with us, please tell the world ! If you are not happy with us, please tell us, so we can fix the problem !

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