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Negative patient reviews: How to handle a potential minefield

by in Complaints, NHS Choices, Reviews

Finding it hard to respond to negative patient reviews? Here are a few tips from Yorkshire Medical Marketing to get a positive outcome for your practice.

After a long day of juggling a phone that never stops ringing, a long line of patients and not enough appointments to go around, you’d probably prefer to stick pins in your eyes than settle down to read some online patient reviews, right?

But if you’re the individual responsible for managing online reviews in your practice, what’s the best way to handle them without losing your head?

Do you hotly defend your hard-working colleagues, apologise profusely to everyone who’s unhappy or simply ignore them all? The potential for online reviews to blow up and create a PR disaster is huge, so it’s hardly surprising that many practices steer well clear, especially when they’re done via Facebook Pages or Google reviews where there’s little to no moderation involved.

Before settling into the world of healthcare, I spent a number of years working in the leisure industry. From restaurants to gym facilities, and snow slopes to climbing walls, I cut my professional teeth in the big hole of customer reviews, handling some of the harshest, bizarrest and weirdest comments you could ever imagine!

Shortly after joining healthcare, I got involved with a number of complex and deeply dividing hospital changes that required some pretty careful comms planning and management, especially with the patients affected.

However, throughout my career, I’ve found that with the right strategy, it’s possible to wade through the sea of potential disasters and come out the other side (almost) smelling of roses.

Here are a few tips that could help you handle negative practice reviews.

Don’t take it personally

This one’s important so we’re going to say that again: it’s not personal.

The person writing the review has no idea how hard you’ve all been working all day, all week and even all year long! They often aren’t aware of how practices operate at all. They’re simply writing a review based on how they felt on that particular occasion.

Their comments may be justified, but on the other hand, it’s possible that they aren’t. Maybe they were having a bad day too and are taking out their frustrations on a perceived slight?

Whether their negative review is justified or not, don’t take the comments as a personal insult. It does take a bit of practice, but keep reminding yourself that everyone is entitled to their opinion – even if you don’t necessarily agree with it. Admittedly, you might have to do this with gritted teeth…

Use it as a genuine opportunity to reflect 

Practice staff have to work very hard in a sensitive environment, and it’s hard to find the time to stop and reflect. When you’re constantly busy, there are simply not enough hours in the day to consider how you could do things differently.

When you receive a negative review, rather than just bristling at the criticism, make a conscious effort to consider whether the patient may have a point. This could help you improve processes for both patients and staff, and it looks really good if you’re able to reply and honestly say you’ve made changes in response to their comments.

The BIG secret…

If you’re terrified of handling reviews, particularly if they contain criticism that’s justified, there’s a big secret that you should know.

For many people, it’s not the review that really matters, it’s how you handle it. If you’re genuine, honest and offer a heartfelt response, you could end up actually enhancing your reputation. Everyone gets complaints sometimes; what really counts is how you handle them.

Remember, you’re not just replying to that individual customer, you’re showcasing the attitude of your practice for everyone to see. Patients will appreciate an honest and personalised response as it shows that you’re a practice that cares, even if you don’t always get things 100% right.

A few quick tips

There are a few things you should know when replying to patient reviews. Easy to follow, they will give you much more confidence:

  • Reply to everyone – don’t skip reviews because they’re good, bad or because you don’t know what to say! Everyone deserves an individual reply, even if it’s to ask them to come into the practice so you can discuss the matter confidentially.
  • Don’t disclose personal details – if you can’t comment due to confidentiality, simply apologise and explain this is the reason. Empathise and, where appropriate, ask them to get in touch for a private conversation.
  • Never copy and paste the same comment. It looks lazy and as if you don’t care enough to respond individually. If you genuinely don’t have time, it’s better to delay providing a response rather than slapping in a standardised reply! If it helps, keep a draft email with about ten variations of the same message; that really helped me to tailor more individual responses.
  • Acknowledge their dissatisfaction, even if you don’t agree. You can be sorry that a patient feels unhappy, even if you don’t feel the practice was at fault.

We all have bad days and if you feel a red mist rising in response to what you’re reading, it might be better to put the reviews aside, go and put the kettle on and respond tomorrow. 

By Kara Skehan (Yorkshire Medical Marketing)

Front-line friend to primary care. Champion of common sense and ‘reyt’ simple words. Kara is a healthcare marketing specialist living and working in Yorkshire.

PLUS members can find useful resources regarding complaints here.

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