Got A Hot-tempered Patient? Chill.
by Sally McKenzie CEO
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According to the American Dental Association, 67% of patients who are unhappy with a dental practice will leave. However, only 30% will voice their dissatisfaction; the other 37% will just not return. If you’re lucky, you’ll know how to handle that precious 30% and encourage them to give the practice another try. If not, you’ll make their decision to leave all the easier.
When patients are upset they need the opportunity to unload their concerns. These are crucial moments in which the highest level of diplomacy is required. You have to sit there and let the patients tell their story and get it out—difficult as that may be. Obviously, you have no control over what a patient says, but you can take huge steps toward creating a positive outcome if you judiciously contain the urge to get nasty even when the patient deserves it. In effect, you have to build an imaginary wall that separates you emotionally from the patient. At the same time, however, you have to come across as empathetic to the patient.
Indicate to patients that you have heard and understand what they are telling you. Use phrases such as, “It sounds like what you’re telling me is…,” or, “You’re concerned about <…>. Do I have that right?” Only then will upset patients be willing to listen to anything you have to say because only then will they feel that you have heard their concerns.
Look for areas in which staff can agree with a disgruntled patient. For example, a patient complains to the front desk staff because the doctor is charging $50 to examine their child and says, “The doctor only spent two minutes in the room, and it cost $50.” The staff member might respond with, “You know, you’re right; the doctor is quick. She is able to complete the exam before the child has a chance to become fearful or get upset. Pretty amazing how effective her approach is, wouldn’t you agree?” Then tell the parent all the things the doctor is able to look for and find based on that seemingly brief examination.
Resist the urge to get defensive toward the patient who accuses the practice of trying to cheat them on the bill. Instead, say to the patient, “I’m sorry there’s a mistake on your bill. Let’s go over it together, and find out what the error is. Let’s see how quickly I can get this fixed.” While you’re at it, look for a compliment that can be offered to the irritated patient as the team member is trying to solve the problem, such as, “You’ve certainly been a good patient over the years, Mrs. Cartright.” The approach will help to calm the patient down, help her to feel appreciated, and help her to feel that you are on her side.
One of the best approaches to curbing patients’ disgruntlement is making things expressly clear to them when they are in the chair. It can be tremendously beneficial to outline to a patient specifically what’s going to happen during the visit. For example: “First we’re going to talk about why you’re here. Then I’m going to examine you. After that we’ll talk about my findings.” A study conducted by the American Medical Association of physicians who had never been sued compared them to physicians who had been sued at least twice an found that those who had never been sued spent slightly more time with patients. They allowed the patients to tell their story without interruption. They also outlined what would happen during the visit. Moreover, patients tend to be more cooperative when they know what to expect during the visit.
Keep in mind that patients don’t want you to “like” them. In other words, don’t tell a patient what you would “like” to do. It implies that the doctor is recommending what he/she prefers rather than what the patient actually needs. Instead of saying, “I’d like to put a crown on that back molar,” say, “I strongly urge you to…,” “My professional recommendation is …,” “The treatment that is the best match for your needs and priorities is…,” or “The treatment I would choose for myself or my family is….”
Patients judge dentists and dental staffs more on their talk than their treatment. Like it or not, patients reason, “I may not know dentistry, but I know people.”
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