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When Patient Complaints Fall on Deaf Ears

Posted by Kristin Baird on June 12th, 2014 • 1 Comment »

Hello…? Is anybody there? That’s the sentiment we often get from patients and family members who have voiced concerns only to be left wondering if their words had fallen on deaf ears.

Our firm frequently engages patients and families in focus groups and in depth interviews to delve more deeply into their experiences. I recently led a focus group of family members who were very forthcoming about their experiences. They made it clear that the clinical care had been excellent and that they always felt that their family member was well cared for, yet this point became buried deeply under a plethora of irritations that became their most memorable experiences – and the ones they talked most about.

Believe me, after years of conducting focus groups, I know how to re-direct and keep participants from turning the discussion into a gripe session. But there are occasions when their overall experiences (and thus the memorable story) are so muddled by service issues that it has to be told.

I heard tales of confusing instructions leading to botched appointments and of less than courteous staff. I learned of long waits, poor follow through, and huge gaps in communication. But the message that concerned me the most was the fact that virtually all the interviewees said they had talked with leaders about their dissatisfaction and felt that nothing had been done about it. Whether true or not, this is their perception. And what I’ve learned is that when people feel nothing is done about a complaint, they are unlikely to bring it up to the leaders a second time. They will, however tell anyone else who will listen. At that point, what could have been a simple fix becomes a reputation issue.

In reality, when I share the concerns with leaders, many of them are aware and are actively working on solutions or have already resolved them. Why then, do the customers feel that nothing has been done? No one has closed the communication loop.

It takes courage for a customer to voice concerns. When they do, they want to know that their efforts were worthwhile. The key is follow up. You may not be able to discuss disciplinary actions if their complaints involve staff, but you can circle back to thank them and let them know their concerns are being addressed. If it’s a process issue, you can always thank them for bringing the issue to your attention and tell them that their feedback is helping you to re-design or improve the process. The message is fairly simple: You spoke, we listened, and here’s what’s happening.

Most people, by nature, avoid confrontation. So when patients and family members do complain it’s imperative that you acknowledge and apologize but also circle back and let them know that their concerns are being taken seriously and that their feedback is important.

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Baird Consulting

One Response to “When Patient Complaints Fall on Deaf Ears”

  1. Excellent article on making a win out of a complaint.
    Recently I observed in a physician practice the dissatisfaction of patients waiting in their mind “for no reason” after coming on-time for their appointment for multiple immunizations. No one was explaining to the foot tapping patients that the immunizations could not be drawn ahead of time. Would it be better then to draw each one in front of the patient instead of leaving them in the waiting area?
    Would it have been possible to gather the vials and supplies needed for that patient and place them in a tray in the refrigerator savings some time? Were there other ways of speeding up the process without pre-drawing and risking waste if the patient no-showed?
    Often the first step is taking patient’s irritations seriously, communicating with them about their concern and if possible reworking how things are done.


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