A while ago, Atul Gawande, the noted surgeon-author, wrote a long piece in the New Yorker on why healthcare should look to a restaurant called the Cheesecake Factory for some guidance on how to standardize things.

This was met with some derision by a number of physicians who pointed out, among other things, that the food at the Cheesecake Factory is not very tasty and is loaded with calories. But I guess it's at least it’s "standardized" mediocre and unhealthy food.

Then a doctor named Peter Ubel, who has written a book about something, wrote in Forbes magazine that doctors should take a cue from Starbucks about how to deal with people. He went so far as to say that baristas have more emotional intelligence than physicians.

He says the Starbucks staff are trained to placate angry customers using the mnemonic “LATTE,” which stands for “Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred.”

I have never worked at Starbucks, but when I was a surgical chairman, I unknowingly used most of their principles in dealing with patient complaints about my attending and resident staffs. I could add another. I used to ask the dissatisfied patients and families "What can I do to make you happy?"

I was surprised that in many cases, the complainants could not think of a single thing that would make them happy. The question often completely diffused the confrontational nature of the encounter. You might want to try it sometime.

Another way of looking at this issue was suggested by a Twitter colleague, Dr. Edward J. Schloss, who tweeted, "We work for the government. They should compare us to the BMV or post office, not Starbucks."

Since doctors are already notorious for making people wait, comparisons to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles would seem appropriate. And some docs also take forever to return phone calls, similar to the post office's habit of delaying the mail.

Surely physicians look better when compared to another government agency, the Internal Revenue Service, especially now that the IRS has been accused of selectively harassing certain political groups and spend lavish amounts of money on conferences.

At least no one has suggested comparing us to pilots lately. I have dealt with that analogy decisively in the past in a General Surgery News post.

Why should practicing medicine be compared to any other occupation?

Doctors are unique. None of us is perfect, but despite the occasional bad apple, most of us are doing the best we can for our patients under difficult circumstances.

Skeptical Scalpel is a recently retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For the last two years, he has been blogging at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog averages over 900 page views per day, and he has over 6100 followers on Twitter.