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Patient Complaints: A Good Thing

As the former office manager of a 14-doctor pediatric practice, Paul Vanchiere is no stranger to the delicate business of handling patient complaints.

From the dad who rails about a co-pay, to the mom repulsed by the balled-up Kleenex stuck in a waiting room chair, all complaints, Vanchiere suggests, should be embraced by providers and staff alike as “opportunities for improvement.”

“The bottom line is people complain because their expectations are not met,” Vanchiere said. “Maybe mom didn’t receive timely care, or she wasn’t given the proper attention by front office staff. Maybe she’s just looking for respect.”

Vanchiere, founder of Pediatric Management Institute, challenged attendees – most of whom were office managers – to think about their own experiences and how they handled them. The outcome, depending on the complaint, can be as personal as gaining the respect and loyalty of a patient, or as transformative as changing office protocols and adding new services.

For example, Vanchiere’s office placed a Diaper Genie® in the janitor’s closet based on complaints from mothers who had to haul poopy diapers around in the car after an appointment.
Complaints, Vanchiere says, are integral to a practice’s quality service because they:

•    Help a practice learn from its mistakes
•    Identify gaps in current processes
•    Provide a mechanism for Mom’s input into quality improvement
•    Provide trend data useful for quality improvement
•    Recognize the right of Mom and Dad to complain
•    Restores trust

So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of handling complaints. First, every practice should provide organized guidance – via written policies, promotion, staff training and tracking systems –  on how it handles complaints.
Second, providers and staff should always be aware of how they personally respond to complaints, not only paying attention to the words they choose but to the tone of voice and body language accompanying the response.
Angie Price, office manager at Pediatrics of Akron, in Ohio, said phone staff used mirrors to show how facial expressions have bearing on how they come across to customers.
Finally, Vanchiere offered some general dos and don’ts for taking complaints:

Do:
•    Give your name
•    Be sympathetic
•    Listen & take Mom seriously
•    Let Mom have her say
•    Get Mom’s details – name, address, phone number, etc.
•    Get the full facts and take notes
•    Tell Mom what will happen next and how the complaint will be handled
•    Stay calm even if Mom gets angry
•    Act quickly once Mom has left
•    Document the incident

Don’t:
•    Consider the complaint a personal criticism
•    Tell Mom to complain in writing or to come back later
•    Argue with Mom
•    Accept abuse from Mom or Dad
•    Get angry or get into a blame game
•    Deter people from making a complaint
•    Use jargon when writing back to Mom or Dad

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