Consider how the following all-too-possible scenario and how you’d handle it.
Dr. Smith opens the door to the treatment room to find his 18-year-old patient, Ashley, white-faced and grimacing. He asks her how her day is going, and she says, “OK, except for the burn.”
Smith does a double-take, but Ashley shows no sign of sunburn. Upon inquiring further, Ashley explains that the staff had put her on the electrical stimulation unit—despite specific instructions in her chart that she not receive e-stim—and then left her alone in the treatment room.
What’s worse, Ashley had been trying to get the staff ’s attention several times to tell them the treatment was burning and stinging. They ignored her complaints, telling her it was normal. At the conclusion of her 10-minute session, after the pad was removed it revealed a 1.5-inch diameter burn. The staff told Ashley it must have been there before, and left her in the treatment room without alerting Smith to the incident.
The good and the bad
Have you ever spoken with a prospective patient, an employee, or patient who had a complaint about the products or services you provided? If you’ve been in practice for any length of time, the answer is likely to be “yes.”
On the other hand, have you ever had a person in your practice who raved about your products or services?
Again, the answer is probably “yes.” Most people enjoy the latter, while dreading the former. However, both criticism and praise are simply forms of communication.
No one likes to hear criticism. But sometimes that is exactly what you need to propel yourself and your practice to the next level. If someone takes the time to point out an error or concern, how you handle that conversation is paramount. Unfortunately, you probably weren’t trained in customer service, dispute resolution, or patient communication in school.
Here are eight tips to help you respond positively to negative feedback.
1. Change your mindset
Instead of dreading criticism, flip your perspective and see it as an opportunity to correct a problem you didn’t even know you had. While it can sometimes be hard to accept—step back and look at the information objectively. How can it help you to improve your processes or grow your practice?
2. Keep calm
This phrase has become quite popular recently, and it applies perfectly in regard to receiving criticism. When a patient is unhappy or dissatisfied, it can be stressful for everyone involved. But getting upset or taking it personally won’t help. Remain gracious, calm, and professional to have the best chance of a favorable outcome. In our scenario, Smith was understand- ably worried and upset about the situation, but he had to remain calm to help the patient stay calm.
3. Give thanks
Yes, thank the person for their time and insight. A business can’t improve and grow without feed- back. That’s all criticism is—feedback. If the person didn’t care about you or your business they probably wouldn’t have said a word. By opening the lines of communication, they’ve given you valuable information and an opportunity to turn the situation around.
With today’s instant communications, people have more options to express their dissatisfaction than ever before. They could post it on Facebook, send out a tweet, email their contacts, write a terrible review, and more. The fact that they took their valuable time to engage with you should be respected, appreciated, and acknowledged.
Stop whatever else you might be doing and give the person with the problem your undivided attention; make eye contact, and really listen to what they’re saying. Don’t try to multitask or mentally prepare a rebuttal. You might be surprised about the insights you receive when you’re truly listening.
When Smith thanked Ashley for letting him know about the problem, she felt comfortable enough to explain the situation in more detail. As a result, he was able to determine that his e-stim unit was malfunctioning, that he needed to better train his staff on how to respond to patient complaints, and that his internal communication processes must be improved on multiple levels.
5. Ask questions
Just as when taking a patient’s history, dig a little. Make sure you completely understand the issue from the other person’s perspective. Ask respectful questions to clarify and see if you can get to the root of the issue. Once you feel like you under- stand the problem, determine the best response. (You might even ask the other person if they have a good solution in mind.)
6. Resolve the problem
Take care of the issue to the best of your ability. You may not always be able to fix it completely, but your open and honest effort will go a long way toward turning the situation around. If appropriate, apologize. (If you’re afraid apologizing might open you up to liability, call your professional liability carrier for advice.)
After listening attentively and asking questions, Smith examined the burn and determined it to be mild. He provided instructions to Ashley on how to care for the burn, and gave her his personal cellphone number in case she had any questions. He apologized for the mistake and didn’t charge her for her adjustment that day.
If the problem concerned patient care, document it and the resolution process in a HIPAA- compliant manner. Remember: If it’s not documented, it didn’t happen. Then forward the documentation to your professional liability carrier if necessary.
8. Follow up
Once the issue has been addressed, don’t assume it’s been resolved to the patient’s satisfaction. Follow up with them to ensure the issue was handled as discussed.
Smith checked in with Ashley a few days after the incident to make sure the burn was healing as expected, to see if she had any questions, and to thank her again for her feedback. He explained how her communication allowed him to make changes in his practice processes to ensure the same thing won’t happen in the future.
Anyone who has been in practice for any length of time knows that scenarios like the one discussed in this article happen every day in healthcare, and they have the potential to turn ugly—and quickly. Smith heard the negative feedback, looked at the situation objectively, and took the steps needed to resolve it to the satisfaction of all involved.
The life of any small business owner, especially the healthcare provider with a private practice, is far from perfect. While juggling staff management, patient care, documentation requirements, and other demands placed on your time, it can be easy to make a mistake. Learning how to effectively handle negative feedback or criticism is an important business skill that can help you to find opportunities for growth.
Kelley Pendleton , DC, is a healthcare marketing consultant, professional speaker, and the author of Community Connections! Relationship Marketing for Healthcare Professionals. She uses her expertise to help other healthcare professionals build the practices—and lives—of their dreams. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through drkelleypendleton.com.