A physician talks to a patient and looks distressed.

Mitigating an Unwanted Outcome with Compassion

You treated the patient and felt treatment went well, only to be advised that the patient/family/caregiver is upset with the outcome. What to do?

Upset patients are not uncommon. We all have expectations in everything we do: how things will turn out if we do “A” and not “B” or we plan for “C” and “D” happens. When it comes to medicine, no one will argue that it is called the “art of medicine” for a reason. If you are meeting the standard of care and documenting your rationale for the treatment plan, it is hard to argue successfully against your actions.  However, that does not minimize the fact that perceptions and expectations exist and sometimes appear when least expected.

When that angry patient/family/caregiver presents their perspective, don’t blow them off. Instead, as hard as it may be, now is the time to reach out to help them to understand what you did or said. The best course of action is to bring them into the office to discuss what they believe was (or wasn’t) done or said. The meeting should take place sooner rather than later. This is when you need to tap into your compassion. Compassion can re-establish trust, rebuild the relationship and mitigate further legal actions. Demonstrating compassion requires active listening on your part, making eye contact and the remaining calm. Take notes during the conversation so you can repeat back what you heard to confirm you are getting it correct.

Recognize their emotions without becoming defensive

If the situation is because of your treatment:

  • Help them to understand why you chose the treatment and why it differed from their expectations.
  • Discuss the next steps in your treatment plan and affirm that you are on top of it to re-establish their confidence in you.
  • Assess their understanding of the plan going forward and get their buy-in.

If the situation is due to misinterpretation:

  • Apologize for any statement which might have been interpreted as being insensitive.
  • Remember that their emotions were at an all-time high when they saw you and/or were in pain; trying to connect with someone in that state of mind can be difficult. 
  • Advise them that you will be more careful in the future and thank them for pointing the situation out to you so you can be aware of this going forward.
  • Before you end the meeting, confirm that the patient/family/caregiver’s expectations are met due to this meeting and the next steps (such as a follow up appointment, etc.) and encourage any additional questions.

Document the meeting for quality assurance 

Include who was present, the reason for the meeting, what was discussed and the resolution.  The situation offers an excellent opportunity for the entire staff to learn how to handle these types of situations and will illustrate how a true leader can address an awkward situation.

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