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How Your Clinic Can Reduce the 10 Biggest Patient Complaints

For several years, the No. 1 patient complaint in clinics and hospitals hasn’t been about the quality of care. It’s been the quality of their treatment as individuals, says Peter Provonost, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality and senior vice president of patient safety and quality at Johns Hopkins.

In the digital age, helping patients feel comfortable as human beings who need to discuss human complaints with other humans is crucial. Fortunately, the top causes of patient complaints can often be addressed effectively with up-to-date digital tools. Doing so allows providers to focus on their patient’s individual needs without losing track of vital data.

Contacting the Provider

Some patients find it difficult to get in touch with their healthcare providers, Bernie Monegain at Healthcare IT News writes.

Outdated voice systems, long hold times or confusing protocols for processing a question can all stymie patients. That can lead to increased patient dissatisfaction and, sometimes, non-compliance with medical instructions.

Meanwhile, many practices struggle to understand the best ways to incorporate communication tools like email and patient portals. For instance, while email can greatly improve communication between physicians and their patients, clinics may hesitate to employ email due to security concerns or fears that the tool will overwhelm providers, Leonard Holmes at VeryWell Health says.

For these practices, the answer may lie in systems specifically designed to manage healthcare communications and create a seamless yet secure process for patients to reach their providers.

Using Patient Portals

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Meaningful Use requirements have prompted more than 87 percent of US medical practices to implement patient portals; however, use of the portals still lags among patients who find them more bewildering than helpful, Rajiv Leventhal at Healthcare Informatics writes. These patients may feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, facing both frustration over phone contact and bafflement at the portal’s tools. That’s a solvable problem.

When portals don’t offer certain tools or don’t offer them in an accessible manner, the portal can’t fulfill its goal of helping providers engage patients in their own care or balance practice workloads, says Dr. Michael McCoy, the first person to serve as chief health information officer at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. Attention to portal design and methods for gathering feedback on patients’ use of and satisfaction with the portal are a must in order to make the tool actually useful.

Scheduling Delays

When a patient calls their doctor’s office, they do so because they need care — and their sense of urgency may be great. Yet the amount of time between the call and the appointment continues to increase, Jessica Kim Cohen at Becker’s Hospital Review writes. On average, patients wait 24 days between making the call and seeing a physician — an increase of 30 percent since 2014. In areas where practitioners are scarce, the time between the call and the appointment can stretch to more than a month.

For existing patients, the wait time can be frustrating; for new patients, it can mean never setting foot in the door. An analysis of 4.2 million appointments scheduled with 13,000 providers found that, on average, a new patient who waits more than 30 days for an appointment is twice as likely to cancel as one who has their new patient appointment within 7 days of calling, says Chris Hayburst at Athena Health. An adaptive system can make scheduling new patients easier, leading to improved satisfaction from the first appointment.

Waiting Room Blues

Once patients arrive, how long do they spend in the waiting room? A 2017 study found that the average wait time was 20 minutes in clinicians’ offices and 17 minutes in hospital-owned physician practices, Sara Heath at Patient Engagement HIT writes. The longer the wait, the more dissatisfied patients become.

If back-ups commonly lead to extended wait times, consider a scheduling system that can adapt to multiple factors, medical writer Ashley Hay, R.N. suggests. For instance, scheduling software that uses artificial intelligence to analyze data can change the recommended length of appointments to match a patient’s needs or can send automated updates to patients when a significant delay occurs.

Office Professionalism

A 2018 study published in Nursing Open by Lisa Skar and Siv Soderberg found that among 587 patient-reported complaints, “patients were most dissatisfied when they were not met in a professional manner.” Issues included patients not receiving an apology or a response to their complaint. A comprehensive patient complaint system can help providers collect and track instances of patient dissatisfaction, improving providers’ ability to respond effectively, say researchers Tolib Mirzoev and Sumit Kane in a 2018 article published in Global Health Action.

They note that a mechanism for responding to complaints in a timely manner is essential to both patient satisfaction and improving a provider’s response times.

Time Spent With Provider

Quality of time spent with their doctor is essential for patients.

A rushed visit, or one in which the patient doesn’t feel heard or understood, damages this sense of inclusion. Tactics like shared decision-making are increasingly replacing older models of care because they allow physicians to provide better care — and they improve patient satisfaction by offering a process that includes them and respects their perspective, health writer Barbara Sadick explains.

Current digital tools give physicians patient information at their fingertips, allowing them to spend their time focusing on the in-person encounter. “Our most important time spent in a day is with our patients. If we don’t allow them to give us a complete picture of their overall health, we can’t help them effectively maximize it,” says Neel Anand, professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The right analytical tools can make it easier for providers to gain a fuller picture of their patient’s needs.

Mistakes in Care

Although “the waiting room trumps the exam room” when it comes to patient satisfaction, according to Vanguard CEO Ron Harman King, patients notice mistakes, too. They are particularly likely to notice omissions in care or when providers fail to do something, says Alex Gillespie of the Department of Psychological and Behavioral Sciences at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Medical errors are a leading cause of death in the United States, report researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine in a study led by Martin Adel Makary, M.D., M.P.H., and an intense focus on using information technology to reduce or eliminate them has risen in recent years. The right tools can help providers track issues reported by patients, identify ways to eliminate them, and communicate with patients who report mistakes, says Jamie Clifton, vice president of product management and solutions at Bridgehead Software.

Receiving More Comprehensive Healthcare Information

Today’s patients increasingly seek medical care that addresses their mental and emotional needs as well as their physical ones, and they feel dissatisfied when they don’t receive it. When their care doesn’t provide the holistic information they need — or when they can’t understand information they’ve been given — their dissatisfaction increases and their health can suffer, says Dr. Wayne Jonas, executive director of Samueli Integrative Health Programs and practicing family physician.

With only a few minutes for most appointments, providers can benefit from digital tools that allow them to share information easily with patients. A system that sends emails to remind patients about upcoming appointments, referrals and the need to schedule annual checkups can help patients stay current with their healthcare. The system can also incorporate regular newsletters with tips for general health and wellness, as well as updates about the provider or practice, which can improve patient satisfaction and engagement, Alex Mangrolia at Practice Builders writes.

Patient Payments

Patients find medical payments and billing complicated, which not only leads to frustration but can also hinder or prevent them from meeting their financial obligations on time.

When charges like fees for missed appointments are added to the bill, patients may even decide to switch providers, says Laura Hatch, founder of Front Office Rocks. The problem is compounded when patients struggle to parse billing information and thus to understand where charges come from. Simplifying financial communication has a significant positive impact on patient satisfaction, agrees Bird Blitch at HealthcareITNews.

Easy-to-read statements, consistent payment processes at the provider’s location and multiple payment options can all make it easier for patients to understand their bills and meet their financial obligations. Meanwhile, analytical tools used by providers can help offices keep track of how well they’re communicating with — and collecting from — those they serve.

Scheduling Future Appointments

When it’s time to leave the doctor’s office, what is the next step? For many patients, it’s to schedule a follow-up appointment, either with their primary care provider or with a specialist to whom they have been referred.

Yet both can be daunting for patients. When the next visit requires special preparation for a procedure like a colonoscopy or pulmonary test, no-show rates can rise as high as 50 percent, journalist Bill Toland writes. That’s why many practices help keep patients on track by scheduling the patient’s next appointment before the patient leaves the building — in some cases, even before the patient leaves the exam room.

A system that provides additional reminders and necessary information can help patients as well: Approximately one-third miss their next appointment due to sheer forgetfulness, as one study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine found. Automated reminders and data analytics can help keep patients on track and illuminate ways for practices to help them make and keep follow-up appointments.

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