Are you really listening to patients?

Deb Beaulieu

Deb Beaulieu

In today's constantly connected environment, there are a myriad of ways you can get feedback from your patients. But just having all the channels open--suggestion box, surveys, social media, online reviews, etc.--doesn't necessarily show patients that you're really listening.

Granted, the extremes take care of themselves. If a patient is over-the-moon in love with your practice, he or she will tell any friend who may be looking for a doctor. Likewise, any consumer who is very disgruntled or angry with a business will probably let said business have it. Some people, let's face it, just really like to complain. That's just one of the reasons practice management advisors are always telling you how to take control of your reputation, online or otherwise.

But what if you throw out the high and low scores? For a minute, try to forget about how the rest of the world may regard what patients say about you and focus in on what they're saying to you.

The following are a few examples of how I've seen businesses (including physician practices) gathering feedback lately, and how they might be able to do it better:

Soliciting 'success stories.'
Overall, I had a great experience with a chiropractor I visited for a couple of months. The office was pleasant, scheduling was flexible, and staff were friendly and accommodating when my children tagged along to my appointments. Most importantly, my back felt better than it had in years. I was not 100 percent pain-free, but as close as I assumed possible before my allotted number of insurance-covered visits ran out for the year.

As I got ready to leave my 10th and final appointment for 2012, this time stopping to say goodbye rather than schedule another visit, the receptionist handed me a piece of paper with the words "Success Story" printed across the top and asked me to jot down some words about my experience with the doctor before I left.

Setting aside the fact that it wasn't practical to ask my four-year-old to wait right then and there while Mommy completed her writing assignment (I said I'd fill it out at home and fax it back), the presumption that all I had were glowing words to say (or be heard) was off-putting. The office already had a binder full of such testimonials sitting in the waiting room, after all. Why did I need to take the time to add one more, I thought, when all they were interested to hear was what everyone else had already told them they were doing well?

Ironically, until that moment, I had yet to have any bone to pick with the doctor, staff or the practice. What I would have preferred, and it seems would be more valuable to the practice in the long run, would have been a brief survey or questionnaire, with plenty of room for free-form comments, and a choice whether to include my name or not.

Hosting a social media black hole.
I recently saw an organization post on Twitter, "Social media is as free as a free puppy. It takes a lot of work to care for." Depending on the size of your organization, you may not be able to respond to every comment. But if your audience or the volume of incoming posts starts to get too big for you to even read them, it's time to start delegating to someone in your office to help keep on top of the feedback and route the important comments where they need to go.

On the other hand, if you're simply on Facebook to amass "likes" and "way to go's," you're probably not going to see any real value from taking the time to post content.

Before I bother to post a comment on any business page, I take a second to scroll around and see whether the page owner responds to comments or even bothers to hit the "like" button from time to time. If there's no trace of a listening presence, I'll most likely keep my remarks to myself. With all of our lives being as fast-paced as they are today, remember that patients want to see a benefit from sharing their time, too.

Saying 'I don't know' when you do.
One of the news stories we linked to in this week's FiercePracticeManagement really bothered me. It talked about the distress patients go through when a doctor leaves a practice, and staff are not allowed, for competitive or contractual reasons, to tell the patient where their longtime physician has gone.

If a patient is telling you he or she is distraught, overwhelmed or frightened by the idea of having no way to contact his or her longtime physician, ignoring that information while you introduce a new physician isn't going to help your patient or your practice in the long run.

Obviously, once you've entered into a contract with a new owner, you have to abide by it. But contracts can be negotiated. If you care about your patients, it seems like this would be a clause worth fighting for. Offer to introduce your new physician as well, but leave the choice up to the patient.

As always, let me know in the comments or by email what you think. I may not always be able to respond but can guarantee I read every one. - Deb (@PracticeMgt)