Monday, September 16, 2013

The Patient-Centric Practice: Practicing Compassion

Patient Centered Practice
Physicians and others in the “caring professions” risk suffering from a special type of burnout called “compassion fatigue.” Physicians are expected to demonstrate compassion toward every  patient they treat—regardless of the pressures facing them day after day. Maintaining high patient numbers makes it very difficult to show each person that you genuinely care.

Short tempers, annoyance with high-maintenance patients, and feelings of emptiness or “going through the motions” may indicate compassion fatigue. Practice management consultant Owen Dahl, FACHE, CHBC, and Author of Think Business! Medical Practice Quality, Efficiency, Profits, recommends physicians enlist colleagues and staff as allies in making the practice a truly caring organization. Conduct training sessions that include group discussions and role playing to draw staff members into the process.

You can recover from almost any public-relations failure. But if you can’t convince patients and their families that you genuinely care about them, you’re heading for disaster. Reasonable folks recognize that medical care doesn’t come with a guarantee there’s always a risk of a less-than-ideal outcome. They also know that customer service sometimes breaks down, that billing errors happen occasionally, and that a very busy practice often keeps them waiting longer than they’d like. From your own experience, what tops the list of patient complaints? Typically, their chief complaint is about unreasonable wait times at the doctor’s office. Rounding out the top five grievances:

1. Unreasonable wait times at the doctor’s office.
2. Patients can’t schedule an appointment within a week.
3. Physician spends too little time with the patient.
4. Physician doesn’t provide test results promptly.
5. Practice doesn’t respond to phone calls promptly.

Notice the theme running through all five complaints: Time! Patients don’t like to wait—especially when they are anxious about their health. And once they get their precious allotment of exam room time, they hate to feel rushed. When you dash in and out of the exam room to see a patient already irritated by a lengthy wait time, what will your patients think? They assume you believe that your time is far more valuable than theirs. So how do you keep patients from feeling like that? After all, even the best practices struggle with maintaining efficient and productive schedules.

There’s really only one answer: Your patients must believe that you and your staff genuinely care about them as individuals. Occasionally you can “fake it,” but if you don’t really care, you’ll rediscover that Abe Lincoln was right: “You can’t fool all the people all the time.”

But genuine and consistent compassion doesn’t just happen. In fact, the stressful environment in which you work every day conspires against your efforts to treat everyone with the kind consideration they deserve. If you want to have a medical practice with a reputation for empathy and compassion, you’ll have to work at it:

  • As a physician or manager you set the tone. Lead by example. Never belittle patients or treat them with contempt—even the irritating, high-maintenance ones. Whenever possible, let your staff see how much you really care about your patients.
  • Create and enforce a patient “bill of rights” and incorporate it into all your policies and procedures.
  • Teach all staff members to imagine how each patient feels during his or her course of treatment.
  • Provide regular training in etiquette and customer service.
  • Share patients’ compliments and expressions of gratitude with the staff.

It’s up to you to create and maintain a culture of compassion. Patients will notice the difference; and even if they complain to family and friends about how long they had to wait to get an
appointment at your place, they’ll add, “but for that kind of care, it was worth the wait.”

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photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection via photopin cc