CHICAGO-Onslow Memorial Hospital once faced about eight to 10 lawsuits a year.
But in recent years, after putting in place a specific methodology for handling patient complaints and grievances, the Jacksonville, N.C., community hospital hasn't faced any, said CEO Dr. Llewellyn Piper.
Piper and Erin Tallman, the hospital's vice president for patient and family advocacy and service improvement, detailed the approach at a session Wednesday at the American College of Healthcare Executives' Congress on Healthcare Leadership in Chicago. Piper said the 152-bed hospital's liability insurance premiums have also dropped by about $1 million a year.
“If you want to find out the human touch of your organization, find out how they handle and deal with patient complaints and grievances,” Piper said.
Tallman defined complaints as concerns or comments that are addressed and resolved on the spot and grievances as concerns that require follow-up resolution in accordance with federal, state and/or regulatory guidelines.
When it comes to grievances, the hospital first reviews and investigates concerns, resolves them, completes a written follow-up and then makes a recommendation. She said the hospital takes a team approach to reviewing grievances and considers them resolved either when the patient is satisfied or when the patient is unsatisfied but a grievance committee considers appropriate and reasonable action to have been taken.
Written follow-ups are completed within seven days on average, though the CMS allows 30 days for resolution of complex issues. The written follow-ups include notice of the resolution, information for a hospital contact person, investigative steps taken, the results and the date of completion. Tallman said she writes each of these letters personally, believing it important to avoid sending a form letter, and she uses a database to track it all.
The hospital also has a patient-service navigator who provides one-on-one assistance to patients and their families. Piper and Tallman also discussed the importance of understanding the psychology behind patient complaints and attitudes.
Piper said one of his best moves was hiring Tallman to be the point person for handling complaints and grievances. The idea, he said, came from his time as the executive officer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which had patient ombudsmen. It's an especially important position, he said, in a small-town hospital such as Onslow, where community members know the CEO personally and how to reach him. They often bump into him at church, the grocery store and out and about, he said.
“You must have a patient advocacy officer to filter through these complaints or it will tie up the CEO's day,” Piper said.
Tallman also said patients appreciate that she's an executive-level employee. Her office is just down the hall from Piper's.
“It makes the person that wants to go right to the top feel better,” Tallman said.
Follow Lisa Schencker on Twitter: @lschencker