Doctor Patient Relations

How I Use Emotional Intelligence to Create a Practice with 90% Patient Retention Rate

Dr. Sampalis in her office’s optical shop. Dr. Sampalis says that she and her team discuss how to best work with patients who have had a hard day or are otherwise experiencing stress.

By Maria Sampalis, OD

May 31, 2023

The patient who arrives upset, the patient who is upset after having to wait longer than expected for their appointment to begin or the one who received the glasses exactly as ordered, but are still unhappy. Those are just a few of the emotionally challenging situations you might experience in your office. In our office, my team and I have prepared for such situations, and can usually navigate them so the patient will return for care. I take the time to get feedback from my team so we can work through issues that may upset patients. We also talk about how to smooth things out when there is a disgruntled patient.

We have achieved a 90 percent patient retention rate, meaning 90 percent of patients who visit our practice have previously received care from us. The use of emotional intelligence in working with patients and each other is a major driver of that high number.

Communicating with Staff to Get Feedback & Gauge Their Feelings
If you and your staff are not communicating effectively, it will be hard-to-impossible to communicate well as a team with patients. For that reason, I take the time to ask my team how they feel about changes in the office, or how we managed a challenging situation. For example, in a staff meeting, I might ask how a new patient flow system is going. One of my employees might mention that it’s more difficult than the old system, so that if everything was done right, it would boost efficiency, but it’s hard to implement, so there are no benefits.

Instead of being defensive and inflexible about an improvement idea I was excited about that is not working, I might say, “Thanks for letting me know. Can you pinpoint exactly where the problems are occurring? If you could share that with me, we can see if there’s a way we can get around those difficulties. I think this new way of doing things can work, but, you’re right, we have to smooth out these problems that are occurring.”

In addition to getting staff feedback during regular weekly meetings, I take my team out to dinner a few times a year as both a thank you and to discuss in a relaxed, leisurely setting how things are going. I am always open to their critical observations and never respond angrily or in a way that suggests that I am unwilling to hear their ideas for a new way of doing things.

If my staff shares with me that a recent patient encounter went badly, we might role-play, when back in the office, how that encounter could have gone differently. For instance, we might practice a new approach to answering an angry patient’s questions about their vision insurance and being charged more than they expected.

Use Codes to Alert Each Other to When a Patient Arrives Stressed
When a patient arrives harried and moody, you can use code words, phrases or just a number, to give each other a heads-up. In our office, we say, “Did you check the prism?” as a code for a patient that has arrived in a bad mood.

If a patient has arrived after a miserable work day, has just received bad news or is experiencing an ongoing life difficulty, their patience will be limited. What they may have been able to tolerate on a good day becomes intolerable on a bad day. For example, if they have to wait an extra 5-10 minutes on a bad day, they may explode in anger. Or, if you find a potential eye health issue during their exam, they may get angry at you and question your findings or start crying.

If you have a way of letting each other know there is a patient in the office who needs to be treated with extra sensitivity, you can avoid a patient who explodes at you and your staff with little provocation.

When I find that a patient has arrived upset, I take the time to talk to them in the exam room, or may even come out to the reception area and walk them back myself. “How are you?” I might ask. If the patient shares with me that they have just lost a parent, for example, I would share my sincere sympathy and then share with them a loss from my own life (if I have one that I feel is similar to their situation), and talk about how they are coping from day to day. “Have they been understanding at your company? Were you able to take some bereavement time off from going into the office? What can we do for you today to make things easier for you at the moment? We understand if you want to come back another time. I know it’s hard to remember to cancel appointments ahead of time when you have a big loss, so it’s OK if you want to do this on a better day.”

I always make sure my patients understand that I realize our appointment is not one of the most important things in their life. We emphasize the importance of their visits to our office to their eye health, but we also remain understanding when life gets in the way and we need to accommodate a last-minute, or even same-day, change in their appointment time, including if they get here and are not up to the visit.

Take Patients’ Buyer’s Remorse Seriously
You and your team may be 100 percent positive that the patient got exactly what they ordered, but if the patient is unhappy and emotional, your confidence does not matter. You never want a patient to leave your office unhappy with a pair of glasses they may have spent significant money to purchase.

My team and I have discussed how to handle a patient who is dissatisfied with their completed eyewear. Brushing them off or telling them, “That’s too bad, that’s what you ordered,” and waving the order they agreed to in their face, is never an option. The optician who worked with the patient would be the first line of communication about the eyewear they are not happy with. “Sally, I’m so sorry this is not what you expected. Can you tell me what things about the glasses you don’t like?” The patient may tell the optician that the color doesn’t look the way they thought it did on the frame board. If you have the same pair of frames on your board, you can take the frames down and lay them side by side with the completed eyewear. The patient may realize at that point that the discrepancy in color was in their imagination.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize it was this color, but I see now that it’s the same as what I ordered,” they may then tell the optician. The optician should then take it further to make sure the patient is happy. “But I can see you’re still not happy. What is it about the color that you don’t like? Maybe we can see if the same frame is available in a color you like better.” If you have a good relationship with you frame vendors and lab, you may be able to accommodate these kinds of remakes for little cost. In most cases, it will be worth absorbing the cost and having a patient leave your office loving their new glasses. That happy patient is going to be the best advertising you could invest in.

Maria Sampalis, OD, is the owner of Sampalis Eye Care in Warwick R.I. and sublease at Warby Parker. She is also the founder of Corporate Optometry on Facebook. Dr. Sampalis is also founder of the job site, She is available for practice management  consulting. To contact:

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