If you’ve ever worked a job that deals with that great entity known as “The Public,” you know all about complaints. You’ve probably had customers shout at you because their order wasn’t right, their service wasn’t quick enough, or they wanted a refund that just wasn’t in your power to give.

It’s easy to roll your eyes at these customers for complaining about things that won’t matter ten minutes from now. But in the CNA world, complaints can either be a matter of someone being unreasonable or a matter of life and death. It’s your job to know how to handle patient complaints as a CNA.

Manage Your Emotions

A patient presenting a complaint is likely going to be on an emotional high. They may be hysterical, angry, and afraid. In this state, they probably aren’t thinking about communicating in a way that spares your feelings. They may even take out all their frustrations on you. When you’re in this situation, it’s natural to blame yourself and grow equally upset or get defensive.

Take a moment to resign yourself to the fact that this scenario might happen and remind yourself what is true. You are a good CNA, and if someone decides to use you as the proverbial human punching bag, that has more to do with them than it does with you. Take this mindset with you into these altercations and allow these thoughts to keep you calm. Becoming emotional with the patient won’t help you help them.

Practice Active Listening

Regardless of what they say, what a patient truly wants is for their problem to be heard and addressed. That means your first job is to hear them out. Even if you think they’re being unreasonable or the problem isn’t drastic, taking the time to truly listen will help you find a solution more quickly. That’s where active listening comes in.

Active listening isn’t just about taking in information. It’s about listening intentionally and empathetically to ensure the speaker feels heard. Here are some concepts to keep in mind when practicing active listening.

Body Language

Most communication is nonverbal and, because of that, we can potentially send messages we never intended. For example, imagine you had a bad day and were trying to tell a friend about it. While you tell them the story, they stare out the window, tapping their toe. Most likely, you would feel that your friend wasn’t listening and didn’t care about what you had to say.

When a patient is explaining their situation, do the following:

  • Face the patient
  • Maintain eye contact
  • Nod
  • Keep your feet planted
  • Try not to fold your arms—this may make people think you’re cross with them

Even if you have a ton of other stuff to worry about, try not to work on other things while the patient is talking to you either. The goal is to let the patient know they are your priority in that moment.

Balance Silence and Verbal Response

Silence is still golden when it comes to active listening. You can’t listen while you’re talking, after all. So, avoid interrupting the patient while they’re talking. You can balance this by nodding or using one or two brief verbal affirmations such as “I hear you” or “Mm-hmm” to show you are engaging with what they’re saying. Just don’t add them every other sentence, or they’ll think you’re patronizing them.

Allow them to completely finish their thought without cutting them off. Allow a moment of silence if needed to make sure what they said has really set in. Then, before jumping in with your thoughts on the subject, summarize what they said to make sure you understood what they meant.

Acknowledge Their Emotions

When you’re responding to a complaint, the goal is action. However, it’s good to take a moment to acknowledge what the patient is feeling. You don’t have to use hackneyed cliches like “I know exactly how you feel.” Simply saying things like, “I understand you’re upset right now” or “I’m sure this is a frightening situation for your family” shows you understand their distress without feeding into their hysteria.

Focus on Solutions and Action Steps

Now that you’ve heard the patient’s complaint, the next goal is to identify solutions to their problem. There might not be a single, hard and fast solution in some scenarios, or you may not know what the solution is. In these cases, focus on steps that can be taken immediately. The immediate steps may be as simple as contacting a doctor or RN. Offer the patient options and ask for their opinion about which option they would prefer.

Document and File Complaints

Even if a patient’s complaint was relatively minor, you should always document the complaint as well as what steps you took to address them. This is important for multiple reasons.

If the complaint is related to a health issue and the condition eventually worsens, you will be able to document when it started and how frequently it occurred. It may also help you create action plans in the future if you can see what solutions were offered to problems in the past. Finally, a paper trail also protects you and the hospital if, for some reason, a patient claims the facility didn’t meet their needs.

Follow Up

So, you heard the problem, you’ve addressed it, now it’s time to put the scenario as far out of our mind as possible, right? Before you do that, take some time to follow up with the patient. If they’re happy with the solution, then you’ve succeeded in making them feel cared for. If they aren’t, you have successfully opened the door to take care of the new issue without it culminating in a patient making another complaint.

Receiving a patient complaint is no one’s idea of a good time. It’s not exactly covered in your Jacksonville, FL, CNA course curriculum. But if you take the time to empathize with the patient, you can help resolve the situation quickly and become closer to your patients as a result.

How To Handle Patient Complaints as a CNA