The email seemed downright mean, albeit efficient. In just two paragraphs the patient managed to criticize my attitude, my responses, my office staff, my computer system, my scheduling system, my treatment of patients and my overall business acumen. Although I was taken aback at the meanness of the message it was the basis for the outburst that most caught me off guard. The email was written in response to a brief message I had sent. My message was, “You are overdue for a visit, please schedule a visit so we can process your refill request.”
I had typed my message quickly in response to an email query from the patient asking me to clarify a previous message. His message seemed straight forward and to need only a brief reply. I was obviously mistaken.
My initial response to the email was defensive. I had done nothing wrong to my knowledge and if there had been an error it was clearly unintentional. The patient had no reason or right to be demeaning. As I thought about what to reply a thought came to my mind. “If your motives are pure, why worry about defending yourself? Why not ask the patient what you can do for him?”
I called the number in the chart and followed up with a brief email saying any failure to communicate on my part was unintentional. To make sure he knew I was sincere I included my personal cell in each communication. We finally connected after a few email and phone tags and he shared with me why he was unhappy. He had struggled with our online system and he wanted me to know how bad it was. There were a number of system failures and it took a while for him to share them all.
As we talked to things became clear. First, he had indeed struggled with our online system. It is glitchy at times and he had definitely been glitched. Secondly, he was someone who desired excellent service. Excellence was his goal in his business and he expects the same from others. What's wrong with that?
Sometimes excellence is not possible. His struggles were the type of understandable and inevitable communication difficulties associated with email and computers in general, the frustration that comes when we quickly type out questions and answers. Because the communication was about something personal, and because it took of too much of his time it was easy to see each mistake as a personal affront, as an insult to his time and person. In his frustration and impatience he reminded me of… me.
For years I demanded excellence from every vendor, service provider and business with whom I interacted. If I was paying for a service I expected the very best. It took me years to realize that perfection is impossible and that excellence is an elusive goal. I thought I was a professional pursuing excellence. Everybody else saw me as a jerk.
On the majority of occasions I complained about unmet expectations I did so ignorant of how hard the other party had worked to meet my needs. I did not take the time to understand what they were up against, what the standards were in the industry or how much time my demands required. I fear that on many occasions I reacted negatively when someone had done all he or she reasonably could have done to respond to my requests. It never dawned on me that I wasn't paying for perfection, that if I wanted perfect performance from the person handling my medical billing or processing a referral it would cost me a lot more than $20 an hour! How unreasonable I must have seemed to others.
I still struggle with adjusting my expectations. Balancing a desire for excellence and a commitment to grace requires constant effort. I have learned that the effort is absolutely worthwhile. As I grow more patient and understanding my stress levels drop and I still manage to meet the goals I set for my practice. I am also considered to be less of a jerk.
I pray that my patient will learn the lessons I have learned and continue to learn. It is much better to be considered kind and gracious than it is to be viewed as excellent and demanding!
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