Is That Dreaded Difficult Patient On The Schedule Today?


You come into the office, see THAT NAME on the schedule, and all of the relaxation and fun immediately goes downhill. Well, it doesn’t have to! So here’s some post-holiday advice for dealing with difficult patients.

Difficult patients can be frustrating, dependent, annoying, entitled, manipulative, hostile, time killing and possibly litigious.

But – oftentimes the patients who are the biggest PITAs just need the most loving, and can be magically transformed into great patients and fantastic beacons for the practice.

Here are some signs that you have a difficult patient:

  • You dread seeing a certain name on the schedule
  • Team members delay returning calls
  • Someone utilizes way too much of your time
  • You feel like you are in a constant “no win” situation
  • A patient is mean, belligerent or abusive

Here is an excellent flow chart for a conversation with a difficult patient. If you like very easy to remember acronyms, you can call it the “OAEBSDAADD” method!

  • Observe: Notice the patient’s words, voice, and attitude. Remember, you are very frustrated but they are frustrated too.
  • Apologize after you hear the complaint: Even if you think you are 100% right, you can always apologize for something. “I’m so sorry that we didn’t meet your expectations” is a good generic one.
  • Express empathy and connect: Pick up on their emotions, figure out their trigger, and then respond. “That must be difficult.” “You sound worried (or frustrated, or concerned). What can we do to help?”
  • Be respectful: Look the patient straight in the eye and be as pleasant as possible. Speak in a friendly approachable manner. Make it clear that you are on their side.
  • Slow down: We tend to rush when dealing with a tough patient because we are frustrated and want to end the transaction as soon as possible. This is counterproductive. Take a deep breath and slow down. Many times all a difficult patient wants is someone to listen to them.
  • Don’t defend: Do not under any circumstances go on the defensive. If you become confrontational, you are giving the patient ammunition to remain difficult.
  • Ask: “Do you have any questions?” and/or “Does that sound good to you?”
  • Act: Form an action plan; follow through.
  • Document. Just in case.
  • Don’t take it personally. This is one of “The Four Agreements.” Knowing it is not personal or about you will help you come to a happy resolution.

Here are some more tips for dealing with the difficult patient:

  • Take a look at yourself and figure out why a certain patient can push your buttons. Even though typically it is about them and not you, if you seem to have a lot of difficult patients the problem may be within.
  • Know when to say “no.” Sometimes difficult patients are like little kids and they just need limits.
  • FINANCIAL SITUATIONS can create a difficult patient. Don’t be a bank, and have simple and easy financial options in place. Payment options such as Care Credit can go an amazingly long way in proactively defusing a difficult patient.

Difficult patients are and will always be part of the practice of dentistry. Hopefully, these tips will help you defuse even the biggest pains in the butt and help you (and the patient) to enjoy your practice!! And if all else fails – curse at the top of your lungs and punch the wall – NOT!

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