Patients' No. 1 complaint? Front-desk staff

A study of nearly 35,000 online reviews of physicians nationwide has found that customer service is patients' chief frustration, not physicians' medical expertise and clinical skill.

The study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Practice Management, reveals that 96 percent of patient complaints are related to customer service, while only 4 percent are about the quality of clinical care or misdiagnoses.

In summary, the study found that fewer than 1 in 20 online complaints cite diagnosis, treatments and outcomes in healthcare as unsatisfactory, whereas more than 19 of 20 unhappy patients said inadequate communications and disorganized operations drove them to post harsh reviews.

"The nearly unanimous consensus is that in terms of impact on patient satisfaction, the waiting room trumps the exam room," Ron Harman King, co-author of the JMPM article and CEO of Vanguard Communications, a marketing and public relations firm for specialty medical practices, said in a prepared statement.

"Our study uncovered a torrent of patient allegations of doctors running behind schedule, excessive waiting time to see a provider, billing problems, indifferent staff and doctors' bedside manners. Yet hardly anyone had a beef with the quality of healthcare received."

Mr. King noted that the absence of dissatisfaction with physician skills per se means practices should be able to improve online reviews comparatively easily.

"Generally, it's far simpler to fix problems at the front desk or physician scheduling than to deal with allegations of inadequate medical skills. Of course, this requires a commitment from doctors to stick to schedules, allowing for only occasional urgencies that interrupt a physician's day," he added.

For the study, researchers developed customized software to analyze online reviews of physicians, medical practices, clinics and hospitals nationwide, according to a news release. The software identified and classified millions of words patients used in describing their experiences. The software also identified the most common phrases associated with each star-level rating, as reviewers are generally able to rate their experiences on a scale of one to five stars.

The study found 61 percent of reviewers gave their physicians five stars and accounted for 69 percent of verbiage in all reviews. Only about 32 percent gave ratings of one or two stars.

Additionally, 40 percent of the five-star reviews complimented physicians on their bedside manners, while 28 percent complimented the staff in clinics and hospitals.

According to the study, among the unhappiest patients, 53 percent cite communications frustrations, using descriptions such as "to get an appointment…" and "I was told that…"




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