Steps toward resolving patient complaints

Don’t risk having a haphazard system to handle patient complaints, advises Kevin Sullivan of the Sullivan/Luallin health care consulting firm in San Diego. Patients might get bounced from one person to another, or resolving their problem may be a low priority for someone else who doesn’t deal face-to-face with patients.

Instead, he offers these pointers:

1. Educate your staff.

Explain how you expect them to handle patient complaints, including an emphasis on courtesy, empathy, and providing swift action.

Instead of giving an off-hand excuse — "Well, our computer’s down" or "Sorry, you’ll have to talk to someone else, that’s not my job" — employees should be apologetic. "I’m sorry you’re having a problem. Let me get some information so I can help."

You should have a form or other method of recording the complaint and a system for making sure the patient receives a prompt response. At Milwaukee Medical Clinic-Advanced Healthcare, for example, employees can go directly to the department supervisor to resolve a complaint within the department. Every employee has access to the quality assurance alert forms. And new employees receive training on handling complaints at orientation.

2. Empower front-line staff.

The staff should have some authority to handle complaints directly, says Sullivan. For example, if a patient informs the clerk of a misspelling or other error in the billing statement or patient chart, the clerk should be able to alert the appropriate person and have them fix it immediately.

"The most successful service industries are those in which I will take personal responsibility for solving your problem and getting back to you," says Sullivan. At Nordstrom department store, for example, clerks will handle your complaints directly without sending you to a special complaint department.

3. Provide support and leadership.

If customer service is a priority, it has to be one in the eyes of practice administrators and physicians, as well. "You’ve got to start at the top," says Sullivan. "This is a strategic planning issue. It’s part of the mission. When you say you’re going to give responsive service, you’ve got to get the top people in practice to buy into it."

4. Tell your patients.

Make it easy for them to provide comments, both positive and negative. For example, Milwaukee Medical Clinic provides "How’d We Do?" brochures that solicit comments at the reception desk. The clinic also conducts a separate patient satisfaction survey to gauge attitudes about the clinic.