Do you have any patients with broken guitars?

In 2008, a musician named Dave Carroll watched in distress from his airplane seat as baggage handlers recklessly tossed his band’s instruments back and forth on the tarmac at O’Hare Airport. His guitar was a just a one-in-a-million piece of luggage to United, but it was the centerpiece of Carroll’s livelihood. After discovering his $3,500 guitar had been broken, Carroll spent six months seeking recourse through traditional complaint channels, to no avail.

So he wrote a song and posted it to YouTube.

Since then, “United Breaks Guitars” has been viewed more than 18 million times, significantly impacted United Airline’s stock value, and is one of Harvard Business School’s case studies. United not only mishandled a guitar, it also mishandled the opportunity to right a wrong and avoid a public relations nightmare.

Failing to treat people with respect, dignity, and, compassion is inexcusable in any business. Professionals unprepared for managing atypical situations or difficult individuals pose financial and reputational risks. In health care, difficulties with scheduling, parking, billing, staff demeanor, etc. can upset patients who already feel poorly and vulnerable. The risks of failing to diffuse interactions that trigger negative responses include losing a patient’s trust (and his or her engagement in ongoing care) and exposing providers to allegations of malpractice.

According to a recent national study, 70 percent of all medical malpractice cases closed with no payment.* Some of those claimants fused an adverse clinical outcome to negative interactions with their health care system. Their sense of an insult to their dignity or inconsideration of their complex personal issues was intense enough to trigger pursuit of a malpractice allegation, even in the absence of substandard clinical care.

The vast majority of health care providers are striving to help every patient in every encounter, but people get busy and distracted and exhausted. Sometimes, the focus on clinical tasks overwhelms one’s ability to listen and empathize and fix a small problem. Unfortunately, some small problems—and it’s impossible to know which ones—become bigger problems that could have been avoided. Establishing a culture that respectfully addresses patients’ broken guitars before they become viral stories is an essential component of good care, and good business.

*A study of 102,017 medical professional liability cases closed from 2007-2016 found that 70 percent closed without an indemnity payment. (Source: CRICO Comparative Benchmarking System)

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