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Dealing with Difficult Patients: Do Customer Service Initiatives Improve Patient Satisfaction at an Interdisciplinary Pain Center?


Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Edgar L. Ross, Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine, Pain Management Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, 850 Boylston Street, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467 USA. E-mail:


Chronic pain patients can be difficult to manage due to complicated medical and psychiatric comorbidities. This study focused on strategies designed to improve patient treatment satisfaction within a tertiary urban hospital-based pain management center. Information was obtained of monthly patient satisfaction and Press Ganey scores in 2009 based on patient perceptions of staff and telephone access, frequency of returned phone calls, staff empathy and responsiveness, and overall patient experience with their pain treatment. Information was also obtained of the number of formal complaints made to the Patient Relations Department of the hospital. A customer service program designed to target patient's phone access, response to phone calls, improved patient experiences, and service friendliness was initiated in March 2010. Six hundred eleven patients (n = 611) were randomly surveyed 3 months after their treatment between 2009 and 2012 and rates of formal patient complaints were monitored. Thirty-three (n = 33) staff members were encouraged to attend monthly 1.5-hour customer service meetings and participate in specialized work teams between March 2010 and December 2012. Patient satisfaction scores rose from a low of 80.3 (average of 83.5%) in 2009 to a high of 91.2 (average 88.9%) in 2012. Annual formal complaints to Patient Relations decreased by 40.5% over 4 years (112 in 2009 to 30 in 2012). Phone abandonment rates also decreased by 20% and the center scored 12% higher than average total practice scores in patient satisfaction based on secret shopper ratings. This study demonstrates that customer service initiatives that engage staff participation and that are designed to target specific improvements in patient satisfaction can effectively change the way pain patients perceive treatment at an interdisciplinary anesthesia-based pain center.