I've been practicing emergency medicine exclusively for almost 19 years now, with the exception of my overseas deployments in Iraq (2008-2009) and Afghanistan (2014-2015), where the practice was a combination of emergency/urgent care, occupational medicine and some primary care. During this time, I estimate that I've seen somewhere around 70,000+ patients in this time, and have not gotten many patient complaints. If fact, I could count the number of written patient complaints that I have received with the digits on my hands.
When I think about those complaints, and about the experiences I have had in treating 70-thousand-plus patients, I am surprised that I haven't received more. Don't get me wrong...I am not an ogre or something, but everyone does have an "off" day now and again. In fact, I'm a pretty out-going and friendly guy, and I enjoy my work. I also generally like people, which I suppose is one reason that I decided to practice medicine for a living for the past couple of decades.
Hospitals are working hard to improve patient satisfaction. The reasons are clearly tied to increased income for the hospital, although on very solid ground I can say that this was a really stupid idea. For this reason, we started seeing the guest / patient services-type of people being introduced twenty-something years back. Then TVs started showing up in the ER. Then paper and eventually tablet-based patient satisfaction surveys became the norm. Patients are now being categorized as clients or customers. There are issues with that, particularly in the emergency department, where the purpose and environment of care are vastly different from other out-patient and departments and inpatient units.
The Emergency Department exists to treat emergency medical cases. That's why they call it the "emergency" department. The emergency department does not exist because you want your knee MRI today, rather than have your doctor schedule it. The emergency department does not exist to refill your medications, and certainly not to function as your pain management clinic. Americans, by and large, are uninformed, unrealistic consumers of health care services. Patients seem to liken the ER to a convenience store, Americans want what they want, preferably want to get it for free, and they want it right now. In short, they have unrealistic expectations of what they can get from the E.D. and many have no idea of what should even constitute a reason for coming to the E.D. to begin with. Just because you want it now, does not make it an emergency.
Girl comes into the E.D. because she missed a period and thinks that she could be pregnant. She has absolutely no symptoms (nausea, vomiting, bleeding, abdominal pain, etc.). I have difficulty with this because, "I want a pregnancy test," is not a valid reason to seek attention in the E.D. In general, I'll advise the patient to either; 1) go to the health department for a free test, or 2) go to any pharmacy or store and buy a pregnancy test.
Similarly, I have had girls come to the E.D. because they decided to have unprotected sex the night before and "just want to get the morning-after pill." Not to champion the cause of rank stupidity in American society, I'll advise the patient to go to a pharmacy and ask the pharmacist for "Plan B."
An obese patient comes into the emergency department with chronic knee pain. It's worse when the patient walks. there has been no trauma / injury, and there are no significant exam findings. The patient expects an Xray of the knee(s) and some magic pill to pop that will magically cure the fact that the human knee is simply wearing down due to years of supporting weight that their joints were never designed to support. The proper treatment in this case would be weight-loss and exercise, with likely OTC analgesics. No matter how you phrase it, the complaint will say something like, "he said my knee hurts because I'm too fat." There's no way you're going to get a good satisfaction score here, or in any of a dozen examples that I could give you. However, that is good medical care.
I have provided some very sick patients with very good care, only to have a relative make a complaint for some vagary, often not even related to care provided. If the patient was a conscious, competent adult, I generally ignore these complaints altogether. If a complaint comes from someone associated with a competent adult patient (a second-hand complaint, if you will), I'll generally just toss it in the nearest waste receptacle. If the patient has an issue, happy to address it. If the complaintant isn't the patient, don't waste my time.
Many years ago, I learned that "you can make some of the people happy, some of the time, but you can never make all of the people happy all of the time." True words then, and the since Americans have gone the way of the "people of Walmart," it is even truer today.
A few helpful tips I can offer on satisfaction, with a degree of confidence from managing to have so few complaints over the course of my career, are as follows:
- Be nice from the outset. Both to the patient and to the family. During the time you do have with them, get to know something of them other than just the medical facts. Find a commonality. Use their name. I like being on a first name basis with my patients.
- Let them know who you are, what you do, and if opportunity permits, how long you have done it. Let them see what you do and have the opportunity to experience you as a professional.
- Keep them informed of their progress, and especially of any unusually long delays in their care and disposition.
- Involve them in the decision-making process and be sure to explain any procedures you are doing. Talk with them while performing procedures.
- Give them realistic expectations, without dashing hope.
- Be empathetic to their situation and allow them to feel that from you. It doesn't make you weak or unprofessional, just human. It never hurts to hold someone's hand.
- Honor their requests, when appropriate. They may ask you to call their doctor. Even if they're not on staff, it's just a phone call.
- A touch of humor doesn't hurt...just remember your audience.
- Do the best job that you can do.
- Don't worry about the scores.