Opinion: Protecting your reputation: Respond to patients' dissatisfaction before problems arise

November 1, 2008

Unhappy patients have always existed. Just as many physicians say they get patients through word-of-mouth, unhappy patients can create problems through the same medium.

Key Points

Unhappy patients have always existed. Just as many physicians say they get patients through word-of-mouth, unhappy patients can create problems through the same medium.

As a result, some doctors are taking active measures to keep bad information - particularly untrue comments - off the Internet.

Listen and respond

For several of the dermatologists interviewed, the key to defusing a potentially negative situation is to listen.

Thomas Hall, M.D., in Stillwater, Okla., says an immediate response is important.

"I try to address the problem while the patient is still in the room if I sense a problem. If you let them leave your office, it's hard to make amends," Dr. Hall tells Dermatology Times.

In Bridgeport, Conn., Jeremy E. Moss, M.D., says, "It's honesty and time. No matter what the waiting room looks like, you're saving yourself future problems, and you're doing the right thing if you just take the extra time and confront the problem head on. Giving patients the extra time to express their feelings may reach the cause of the dissatisfaction."

In Williamsburg, Va., Joseph W. Musgrave, Jr., M.D., agrees. "The worst thing that can happen is that patients leave the office unhappy. If you can get them to air out their feelings, perhaps you can bring about a solution before they walk out the door."

First response

Jeffrey W. Scales, M.D., in Durham, N.C., says his first response is to let patients speak.

"I let them get out everything they want to get out. I make sure my body language is good; I look them in the eye; I nod appropriately.

"I refrain from responding at all until they've finally said what they want - within limits. I can't sit there for an hour, but I'll give them a good 10 to 12 minutes. If there is something that needs to be acknowledged, I certainly apologize, but I never say I think they're right if I don't. If it is a diagnosis they aren't happy about, I may offer them the option of getting a second opinion."

A practitioner for 11 years, Dr. Scales says that will usually be enough.

"I do feel most people just don't want to be dismissed. That's where I find we drop the ball in medicine. We're all very busy and don't like hearing patient complaints, but if we quickly acknowledge a problem, that may just fix it."

Follow up

Eric Marsh, M.D. says he doesn't usually spend appointment time dealing with unhappy patients. He does, however, have another secret weapon in his Libertyville, Ill., practice.

"If a patient seems to be unhappy, since my wife is the office manager, she will call them. Since we're a husband-and-wife, it's family business, and patients appreciate that. They know if they are talking to my wife, they are talking to me. So, nine out of 10 times, that will satisfy the patients."