How to Handle an Unhappy Patient

February 22, 2017 Rieva Lesonsky

It happens in every dental office at some time or other: a patient goes ballistic. How can you handle an angry patient without offending him or her and losing the business? Here are 10 steps to take.

  1. Watch for warning signs. Whether in person or on the phone, it’s often easy to spot anger before it escalates—if you are paying attention. Grunting, clenched fists, heavy sighs, a raised voice or eye rolls from a patient can all signal he or she is getting frustrated. If you spot these red flags, be proactive and give the patient some extra attention to find out what the problem is.
  2. Be sensitive. Let’s face it: Even your best patients probably don’t look forward to sitting in the dental chair. When patients are uncomfortable, vulnerable or in pain from dental problems, their tempers are likely to flare more easily than in normal situations. In addition, dental procedures can be expensive, and dealing with insurance companies is often frustrating. It’s all a recipe for rage.
  3. Employ technology. Are patients annoyed because they missed an appointment and got charged for the no-show? Using automated phone, text or email confirmations and appointment reminders can help keep everyone on the same page and eliminate these frustrations in the future. With Lighthouse 360, you can even two-way text directly with individual patients for ultimate convenience.
  4. Remain calm. Focus on listening to the patient and fully hearing the reason for their anger. Often, feeling understood is enough to calm an upset patient down and resolve half the problem. You can help by letting patients speak their minds in full, and then calmly paraphrasing them to make sure you understand the problem.
  5. Empower your employees. Give your employees guidelines on how to handle difficult patients, including common requests they might make (like waiving a late fee). Then empower them to make their own decisions within those guidelines. When your staff members know they can do what it takes to keep a patient satisfied, both they and your patients will be happier.
  6. Call in a supervisor. Some patients don’t feel satisfied unless you call in the “big guns.” If a patient is getting frustrated with a front desk employee, bringing in a supervisor or other higher-up to listen to the issue may help them feel important.
  7. Get patient buy-in on a solution. Depending on the situation, you may want to ask the patient what he or she thinks is a good solution to the problem. If this isn’t possible, try presenting the patient with two options to choose from. If patients feel they have some control over the outcomes, they’ll be more satisfied with the results.
  8. Know when to cut your losses. Ideally, you want to keep every patient in your practice. However, if a patient frequently argues with office staff, misses appointments, fails to pay bills on time or otherwise causes problems for you, it may be best to suggest they find a new provider.
  9. Set limits. It’s important to protect the dignity and physical safety of your staff and other patients in the office. If a patient becomes physically threatening or abusive, you are definitely within your rights to ask the person to leave the office. If necessary, let the person know you are ready to call building security or the local police.
  10. Keep a record. If a situation escalates to the point where you fear a lawsuit or other action, be sure to take detailed notes after the episode for your records. Get input from your office staff and other patients to back up your recall of the incident.


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