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Health care organizations can reclaim dissatisfied patients by developing effective service recovery programs

When patients have a negative encounter with a health care provider, they are less likely to use that provider again, more likely to talk negatively about the provider, and more likely to shop for and switch to another provider. One way an organization can ensure repeat business is by developing a strong customer service program that includes service recovery as an essential component, suggest Dawn Bendall-Lyon, Ph.D., and Thomas L. Powers, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Service recovery means that the service provider takes responsive action to "recover" lost or dissatisfied customers and convert them into satisfied customers. Service recovery cannot take place if the provider is unaware of dissatisfied customers. However, only 5-10 percent of unhappy patients actually complain following an unsatisfactory experience. Instead, many leave silently with the intention of never returning, and the organization loses the opportunity of addressing the problem.

In a study supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS09446), the researchers identified the six steps involved in using complaint management as an effective service recovery tool:

  1. Encourage complaints as a quality improvement tool (rather than a staff disciplinary tool).
  2. Establish a team of representatives to handle complaints.
  3. Resolve customer problems quickly and effectively.
  4. Develop a complaint database to identify trends and generate regular reports of complaint information to hospital management and staff.
  5. Commit to identifying failure points in the service system.
  6. Track trends and use information to improve service processes and minimize future complaints.

For more information, see "The role of complaint management in the service recovery process," by Drs. Bendall-Lyon and Powers, in the May 2001 Joint Commission Journal on Quality Improvement 27(5), pp. 278-286.

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