From minor complaints to life-threatening emergencies, it’s important to have a plan in place

You’ve heard the saying, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” This is certainly true when it comes to operating a successful medical practice today. You need to be prepared for everything from an unhappy patient to a bad online review to a serious emergency in the workplace. The common thread is that you must plan in advance and set up systems to deal with these issues so you don’t get caught by surprise. Here are three scenarios practices could encounter.

Situation #1: Handling returns and refunds.

It happens: a patient doesn’t like their glasses or hearing aid. What’s your practice’s policy for allowing returns and issuing refunds beyond any state regulations? Eye care practices have different refund policies, according to a recent VisionWeb poll. Some have a 100% money-back guarantee. “If they want a refund, we give it to them… cheerfully. No matter what,” reported one practice. Another said, “I assure [patients] that anyone who is not wholly satisfied with their experience and eyewear from us will indeed get a full 100% refund… It’s very, very rare that we issue a refund.” And yet another practice stated that their policy was “whatever seems honorable under the circumstances.”

Practices’ refund policies range from none at all to full refunds no matter what. The important thing is to have a policy and post it where patients will see it.

Some practices offer refunds during a limited time—say, within 30 days. One told VisionWeb, “On all RX eyewear: we will gladly give you a full refund, exchange, or an RX-change (at no charge), within 30 days from date of purchase. After those 30 days, exchanges and RX-changes will vary upon type of lenses used.” Another practice revised their policy after deciding that while full refunds on custom-made prescription lenses were not cost effective, “we will gladly refund on frames returned in good condition within 60 days.”

And some practices have a policy of no refunds at all, such as the one that stated, “Due to the time involved and custom nature of eyewear; all sales are final… If there is an optical problem we are better served to solve it than anybody else, but we do not count buyer’s remorse as an optical issue.” 

The most important thing is that you have a policy in place, and that you post it where people will see it—on your wall, on your website, and/or on customers’ receipts.

Situation #2: Dealing with difficult patients or caregivers.

Whether it’s an eyewear customer who’s dissatisfied with their new glasses, a frustrated patient who is weary of waiting for the doctor, or a difficult caregiver who’s questioning every treatment recommendation, dealing with challenging people is part of the job in every practice.

Educate yourself and your staff on the importance of empathy to defuse stressful situations. Practice how to be an empathetic listener by role-playing. Basically, it boils down to making eye contact with the person, giving them your undivided attention, and saying things like, “I hear you” and “That sounds frustrating.” For more specifics, see How to Handle Difficult Patients and De-Escalate Tense Situations

Be empathetic and offer unhappy patients a quick resolution. This is often enough to defuse the situation and retain the patient.

In some cases, a simple acknowledgement or quick fix can resolve the problem. According to an article in Harvard Business Review, “As important as it is to respond to every customer issue, it is even more important to respond quickly.” The authors found that when businesses responded to a customer’s complaint in five minutes or less, that person typically would not only remain a customer but was willing to pay more for goods and services in the future. 

HBR finds that when businesses responded to a customer’s complaint in five minutes or less, that person typically would not only remain a customer but was willing to pay more for goods and services in the future.  Click To Tweet

By the way, this applies to negative reviews and comments about your practice online, too. Studies show that any response is better than not responding at all. 

“Sometimes customers are just looking for a little empathy,” according to HBR. In a study on Twitter, “when customers used a negative or even an angry tone in their initial tweet to a brand’s customer service team, we saw that the best approach was to respond to negative comments instead of ignoring them.” For more on this, see Managing Negative Feedback Online: Five Tips. 

This quick-fix approach works in person, too. Give your employees the authority to refund up to a certain amount without getting permission from someone else (or to waive a no-show fee, etc.). If you can offer an unhappy person a solution right away, you’ll defuse the situation and be more likely to retain them as a patient. 

Situation #3: Planning for the worst.

While it’s extremely unlikely that your practice will ever encounter an active shooter, sometimes situations do escalate to violence. It’s a sobering fact that gun violence is on the rise, even in hospitals and health care settings. Even our school children now practice active shooter drills in their classrooms. 

While the likelihood of encountering an active shooter in your practice is low, it’s a good idea to develop a response plan with your employees.

Like it or not, it’s a good idea to develop an active shooter response plan for your practice. “A lot of risk mitigation can happen ahead of time, and part of preparation is doing drills,” said Daniel Nadworny, DNP, RN, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Emergency Nurses Association’s Emergency Preparedness Committee. He suggests talking through a scenario from start to finish. 

University of Miami Health System website lists action guidelines for active shooter situations, which include evacuating if there is an accessible escape route; shelter-in-place in a safe hiding spot if evacuation is not possible; and as a last resort, and only when your life is in imminent danger, attempt to disrupt the shooter by throwing items and yelling. The UM website also includes training videos, posters, and other resources for workplaces. 

While the likelihood of encountering a serious situation in your practice is low, it’s best to prepare in advance and have a plan in place just in case.


For more on a related topic, check out Is Your Medical Practice Prepared for a Natural Disaster?