Patient criticism of a coworker

Jan. 1, 2011
Recently, a male patient in my chair soundly criticized one of our front desk assistants.

by Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA
[email protected]

Dear Dianne,
Recently, a male patient in my chair soundly criticized one of our front desk assistants. It was obvious that she had angered him by mentioning the fact he had missed a previously scheduled appointment. His stated reason for missing his appointment was because he had car trouble.

I had no idea what was eating this patient when I seated him, but his body language was intimidating. He did not reply to me when I asked how he was, and I noticed his jaw was clenched. It made me feel uneasy, so before I laid the chair back, I asked him if anything was wrong. He nearly exploded when he said, "You're damn right something is wrong!" Then he proceeded to tell me about how we needed to "get rid of that bitch at the front desk ..."

All I could do was listen and nod and say, "Really? Well, if I were in your place I'd probably feel the same way." Mostly, I think he just wanted to be heard. I apologized for what he perceived as disrespect. But I'm not sure I handled the situation right, and I keep wondering if I should tell the doctor. Should I or not?Becky, RDHDear Becky,
First of all, I think you did the right thing by asking your patient if anything was wrong. It would have been insensitive of you to ignore his outward, nonverbal signs of hostility. As you stated, some people just want to be heard. This is speculation, but the patient in question could be one of those people with a very short fuse. You know the type. The least little thing can trip their anger switch.

In your particular office situation, there may have been a history of broken appointments. The front desk assistant may have embarrassed the patient by discussing the problem openly within earshot of others. Sometimes it is appropriate to have discussions when disappointments and/or late cancellations become problematic. But those discussions should always be held in private areas away from others.

Patients who criticize our coworkers put us in an awkward predicament. It is important for us to be loyal to our coworkers, but there are times when patients are justifiably upset over an interaction with another staff member. Sometimes it is not what was said but how it was said. More often than not, patients do not tell us when they are unhappy with some aspect of our patient service. They just take their business somewhere else, just like you or I would do if we felt disrespected or unhappy with subpar customer service.

Your reply to the patient showed empathy, and conveyed the fact that you understood why he felt as he did. I think you replied appropriately. You did not engage in criticizing your coworker, nor did you take sides with the patient. You wisely chose to take the middle ground.

Rather than go to the doctor with the patient's complaint about your coworker, I believe a better solution would be to go to the coworker in question. Make sure to discuss the incident discreetly and away from any other individuals. This is a private matter. I would approach the subject carefully by stating what the patient said and then say, "I debated whether to say anything or not, but if a patient made disparaging remarks about me, I would want to know. As your friend, I just thought you would like to know." You will be doing your coworker a favor by not involving the doctor at this point.

However, if you receive numerous patient complaints about a particular coworker, it would be prudent to apprise the office administrator (if applicable) or the doctor. I advise you to keep records, including the date of the complaint, patient's name, and brief synopsis of the complaint.

I think it is fair to say that we all have a bad day occasionally, but when somebody's bad day affects patient interaction/care negatively, somebody could be causing patients to go elsewhere. When patients leave our practices under negative circumstances, market research reveals that patients will tell about 20 people about their negative experience. Not only will we not have their business in the future, but we also lose any potential referrals and suffer from negative marketing. We all need to be reminded that patients sign our paychecks. When it's time to focus on patients, personal issues must be set aside.

Several years ago, I was seated at a public gathering. Before the event started, two women behind me were discussing something that happened in a local dental office. I wasn't trying to be nosey, but the word "dental" caught my attention. One woman was telling the other woman how rudely she was treated in the office by a dental assistant. The woman sensed that there was tension between the assistant and the doctor. I don't remember all the specifics, but what I do remember was her declaration that she and her family would never go there again. This patient had become a negative missionary.

We all need to be reminded that people do not LIKE to come to the dentist, and the very least we can do is show friendliness and caring, not just occasionally but every day with every patient. They all matter. I know we can't please all people all the time, but that should not deter us from being friendly and respectful with every patient.

When a patient becomes angry, here are some steps to help DEFUSE the angry patient:

1) Don't lose your cool.

  • Maintain a neutral face.
  • Maintain a level voice.

2) Encourage patients to vent emotions.

  • Don't be tempted to rush the patient. Rushing makes you seem unsympathetic.
  • Express empathy and apologize for the mistake.
  • Give the patient full attention at all times, and do not let your mind wander.
  • You do not need to make the patient right, but do not make him or her wrong either. "I understand your feelings." "I'm sure if I were in your place, I would feel the same way."

3) Find out the facts.

  • Take notes.
  • Feed back what you hear. "No one called you back that day, is that right?" "It sounds like this entire experience was extremely frustrating for you."
  • Remove all distractions.

4) Understand your patient's feelings.

  • Assume the patient has (in his or her own mind) a legitimate reason for being upset, and then listen for what it is.

5) Suggest a way to resolve the problem.

  • Apologize, and then explain to the patient why his/her wishes cannot be fulfilled.
  • Hear out the patient's response when you tell him or her "no." The points the patient brings up may be valid ones and if you continue to hear the same complaints, you may want to see if something can be changed.
  • Provide the patient with an alternative. Do not just tell the patient what you cannot do, but tell him or her what you CAN do.

6) End on a positive note.

  • Once you have discussed a solution with the patient, make sure the problem has been or soon will be resolved in a satisfactory manner.

Best wishes,

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA, is a professional speaker, writer, and consultant to dental practices across the United States. She is CEO of Professional Dental Management, based in Frederick, Md. To contact Glasscoe Watterson for speaking or consulting, call (301) 874-5240 or e-mail [email protected]. Visit her Web site at

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