The 'Sorry' Solution: A medical practice PR fire extinguisher

This article is published with permission of Healthcare Success Strategies.

There's a temptation to forget that effective medical practice public relations (PR) begins and ends with the individual patient, client, consumer and/or customer.

Although professional communicators use "mass media," the essential mission of PR is far more singular ... and it travels under the label of "customer service" or the “patient experience." And lately we’ve observed how a few simple words can quickly extinguish a potential firestorm.

Nobody in the office likes it when a patient is unhappy or angry about something. Not the front desk, not the practice administrator, and certainly not the physician. A small and smoldering hotspot can easily ignite into a bigger blaze and burn its way up the chain of command…and potentially beyond.

Train everyone to begin with the “Sorry” Solution
Recently we observed a range of patient encounters in medical offices. Perhaps not surprisingly, we found that most issues can be disarmed when the conversation begins with two simple words: “I’m sorry.”

What is most surprising -- alarming, really -- is how frequently these simple words apparently disappeared from everyone’s vocabulary. This can take place on the phone, in person or in written correspondence. More often than not, when faced with an unhappy, upset, even angry patient, many staff members (and some providers) were quick to assume a defensive posture.

Their first response was to protect the castle. The patient’s issue -- large or small -- was most certainly wrong because the practice, the office policy, the procedure (or whatever the source issue) was quite infallible. (Or so the self-defense attitude dictates.)

In contrast, training everyone in the organization to use the following steps can disarm many issues before they spiral out of control.

1. Begin by saying, “I’m sorry,” and mean it. These two words immediately recognize that the patient believes he or she has been slighted, hurt or somehow wronged. It’s not an admission of fault or assignment of blame. To simply acknowledge the patient's feelings opens the door to finding a resolution.

2. Listen for understanding. This is a diagnostic step. Be sure you first understand “what’s wrong.” Strong feelings and angry thoughts can easily mask relatively simple issues. By allowing the person to let off some steam and express his/her frustrations the core concerns can be revealed and, quite often, easily addressed.

3. Ask how the patient sees the solution. The patient's expectations could be unrealistic, but asking about solutions reveals a direction and what he/she thinks is needed to make things “right.” What the patient has in mind to solve the problem might be far simpler and easier than you realize.

4. Let the patient know that you can help. This kind of reassurance tells the patient, client or customer that (a) there is a solution, and (b) you are an ally and not an adversary in resolving the issue.

5. Say “thank you.” The simple courtesy of thanking the patient says perhaps that you appreciate seeing that there was a problem, that the patient's cooperation helped solve the matter or that you appreciate his/her business. Mentally, saying “thanks” provides a final closure to the matter.

Your after-action bonus tip…

6. Learn and adapt. There is a temptation to quickly “put out the fire,” assume that the patient’s issue was important only in the moment, and that now that it’s resolved, everyone can get back to doing business as usual. But seemingly isolated and trivial patient concerns and complaints can reveal significant problems. Take the time to look for reoccurring issues and root causes that can be repaired or avoided in the future.

These steps will not resolve all of your in office hot-potato PR problems. But more often than not, using these simple steps will guide a problem toward a shared resolution. It’s a process for answering an issue, and for putting out a little fire before it accelerates into a blazing public relations issue.

This article was originally published as a Healthcare Marketing Exchange post, and is used here with permission of the authors.

© Copyright Healthcare Success Strategies, Inc. and used with permission. Lonnie Hirsch and Stewart Gandolf, MBA, are two of America’s most experienced healthcare marketers. They have a combined 30 years experience, have written hundreds of articles and have consulted with over 3,500 healthcare clients, including medical groups, hospitals, doctors and corporations. As co-founders of Healthcare Success Strategies, they lead a team of over 40 Healthcare Marketing All-Stars. You may reach either of them via email at .

[See also: Patients want more engagement with doctors]