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Passion, People and Principles

Dealing With the Worried Well

post # 154 — August 7, 2006 — a Client Relations, Managing post

In medicine, there’s a long tradition of the concept of “triage” – quickly dividing emergency room or battlefield patients into groups so you can decide where your efforts as a doctor are best spent.

The word itself comes from the Latin (or is it Greek?) meaning three groups, but along the way a scheme was evolved which put people into four groups:

(a) the sick (who really need you but can be hard to help),

(b) the early sick (who you can usually help),

(c) the worried well, (who don’t really need you but want to hire you) and

(d) the well (who don’t need you).

This is a very handy scheme to use in other environments. For example, if you are a manager in charge of a group of people, the scheme can help you decide how much personal time to allocate to each of the individuals in your group.

It can also apply to customer groups. In some businesses, including consulting, the economics of these different groups vary wildly. The sick, since they cannot really be cured, are often unprofitable. The early sick are reasonably profitable.

As long as they’ll pay for your time, the “worried well” can be a source of very high profits – there’s nothing really wrong with them, but they keep coming back for one more reassuring examination or study.

Of course, this is not all good news. There’s an ethical issue here – do you really want to make your income from people who don’t really need or benefit from your services ?

In addition, unless you have the pricing right, the worried well can choke up your delivery capacity, making you unavailable to those who really need you.

Who are the worried well in your business life? How do you deal with them?


Ed Lee said:

Fantastic analogy David, thanks for sharing that with us.

But I do think that, although they’re the least profitable group, businesses should still pay equal attention to all groups and the “sick” group in particular.

From a selfish point of view, the “sick” are most likely to become the “worried well” in the future; if you can cure them first!

Once bitten, twice shy?


posted on August 7, 2006

Jim McGee said:

An interesting application of the notion.

A side note on the origin of the term. “Triage” comes from French and is derived from the French word “trier” which means to sort. There is no actual link to the number three, despite what it sounds like to English speaking ears.

posted on August 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks for the etymological lesson, Jim. I had no idea!

posted on August 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Some of the people in business who most have to deal with tis concept are internal staffers and service providers. If you’re in HR, marketing, technical services, etc., there’s a very present dnager that your time allocations will be warped by the worried well.

How do internal service providers go about judging the wise allocation of limited capacity? How many degrees of freedom do their “masters” give them?

posted on August 8, 2006