Clearing The Path To Better Doctor-Staff Communication

Lynn Homisak PRT

My husband visited his chiropractor last week and relayed his interesting, yet not uncommon, experience.

After completing his treatment, the doctor informed him that in another week, the office’s summer hours would end and he could begin resuming his Friday (as opposed to Thursday) appointments. When he got to the front desk, however, to check out and reschedule, the receptionist offered him another Thursday appointment to which my husband responded, “Well, I thought the doctor said I could come in on Friday next week.” The receptionist looked surprised. “Friday? No, he must have been mistaken. We don’t usually open our Fridays up until after Thanksgiving. It’s not even Labor Day yet!”

Just then, the doctor passed by the front desk and overheard the conversation. “Oh yes,” he said to his receptionist. “We will be opening back up on Friday next week.” “But doctor,” she replied defensively. “We’ve never opened up Fridays until after Thanksgiving!” Apparently, the doctor decided unilaterally that winter hours were going to start after Labor Day this year but failed to mention this little detail to his staff, leaving the receptionist irritated and my husband confused. The receptionist reluctantly made his Friday appointment. She was not happy.

This is a prime example of a lack of communication and its impacts. This doesn’t just occur at the front desk. It weaves in and out of every office – in some way shape or form – between co-workers, partners or associates, doctors and staff, doctors and patients and staff and patients. Its potential to wreak havoc is real and with it comes inefficiency to the practice, demotivated employees, a frustrated employer and a weakened work culture. To the patients, it just looks messy and unprofessional.

I can rattle off a number of cases in which efficiency has been directly obstructed by unclear responses, a total absence of communication or just poor communication skills but sufficient blog space prohibits me from doing so. However, I can relate a quick story regarding my onsite visit with one group of managers for a large practice.

I met with them to discuss problems, visions, solutions, etc. when one manager raised her hand and said, “We really do appreciate having this opportunity today to share our thoughts but why is it that our doctors felt they couldn’t sit down and speak with us? You traveled thousands of miles to be here. They are here with us every day. We would have been happy to have this discussion with them and could even contribute some worthwhile solutions if they would just ask us. It seems they never want to make the time.” Her question was valid. Why don’t they? I was reluctant to tell her that it was the same reason I get “no” for an answer when staff come to me to share a grievance about their doctor or vice versa and, after hearing them out, ask them, “Did you tell them how you feel or teach them how to do it, or clarify your expectations?” There is just no effort to communicate.

There remains skepticism in believing that effective communication can improve the overall success of a practice. When I make the recommendation to change the way they communicate, I hear, “Come on … it’s gotta be more than that!” Most times, it is not. Truth is, if you were to stop and really pay attention to how many times ambiguity or misunderstandings get in the way of a positive outcome, you might actually do something about it. If you knew how much of a financial impact better communication could have on your practice, you would definitely do something about it.

Even 5 to 10 percent of an improvement would make a difference. The good thing is it is never too late.

Make your instructions specific, not vague. Speak clearly. Don’t mumble. Say it or question it. Don’t assume. Arrange staff meetings to discuss problems and share ideas. Talk to staff. Tell them how they are doing. Say thank you. Smile. Don’t just criticize. Help them make it better. Don’t just tell them. Teach them. Make it comfortable for them to speak up when there is a problem. Simple changes result in big outcomes.

Yes, communication is a two-way street but if you start by committing to make some changes, there is a good chance that your efforts will be noticed and appreciated. Soon, the mirroring effect will kick in and others will follow your lead. Now just imagine what could happen with bilateral cooperation. You may just turn that 5 to 10 percent improvement into 10 to 20 percent or more. How hard would that be to take?


Very well written! I love this article.

I think part of the problem is "us". Our staff generally have their finger on the pulse of the issues in the office, and "we" expect them to deal with them even though it is our business and we are ultimately responsible for the patient experience in the office down to the last detail.

"We" need to be more approachable and realize that "we" have much more at stake in general. It has been my experience that good staff is lost because they feel they are not listened to and problems persist. It's not easy for "us" to swallow that pill but good staff is hard to find as are "good" patients.

Thanks for that very informative blog.

Thank you, Ron. I can immediately tell when there is better communication in an office. They are a much happier group of people! :-)

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