How to deal with difficult patients

May 4, 2016
April Sluiter, EFDA

Sluiter began her dental assisting career back in 1996. She has written industry articles and web content, and teaches dental assisting students and sales reps the inner workings of a clinic. She decided to start her own business providing temporary DA services. Working as a temp allowed her to see a wide spectrum of offices and fine tune her management and clinical skills. By day she is a dental assistant, but by day night and weekends, she co-owns Culmination Brewery. Patient care is customer care, and even though the end product is different, her goal is to assure her clients and patients are happy with their experience.

April Sluiter shows how dental assistants can manage difficult patients without losing their minds.

Do you ever see a specific name on the schedule … and it triggers an eye twitch? Ugh, you know that person is difficult in some way.

Maybe you can immediately recall why that name evokes a stressful response or maybe it comes to you in as soon as they sit in the chair. Perhaps they don’t understand the concept of time and are perpetually late and throw the whole schedule off kilter. Maybe they are high maintenance and require a pillow, blanket, headphones, the chair to be just right and the water to be at a specific temperature. Are they “the know it all,” meticulously reading the Internet to self-diagnose and inform you of what treatment they need? Did reading this paragraph cause you to put your bite splint in due to stress?

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How do you handle these patients with kid gloves, while surreptitiously training them to be more tolerable and allowing everyone to get what they want? Treat them like a customer. You see, patient care IS customer care.

Now, this does take practice. Your dialogue, temperament and verbal approach is key. You may secretly want to tell these patients to go to “you know where,” but you like your job and receiving a paycheck. So instead exhibiting signs of agitation and saying something you may regret, here are the key components to “training” your patients.

Stay calm, but assertive. If they sense that you are lacking confidence or get angry, they will get flustered and/or not take you seriously.

Always let them feel that they are in control. Ask questions. Give them the floor and ask them how you can make the situation better.

Offer very limited choices. If you give people too many choices, they can become indecisive and take up a lot of your time trying to make a decision.

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Don’t be an enabler. They aren’t going to change their habits if you let them get away with it.

Let’s take the consistently late patient as an example. He is always 15 minutes late … and has an excuse. You also notice he managed to stop and get a latte. He isn’t respecting you or your practice’s time. How do you handle this? Here’s an idea…

“Tom, I notice it’s been tough for you to get here on time, as it can be for all of us at times. We set aside this block of time specifically for you to get the best possible treatment. Is there a time of day that may work better for you? We don’t want you to feel as though you didn’t get the most effective treatment from us.”

You asked questions, put the ball in the patient’s court, offered a different (but limited) block of time, let Tom know that you want him to have the best service from the practice, and that he should stop that tardiness problem.

High maintenance patients can be a drain on you, your team and the practice. Don’t allow them to cause you undue stress. Practice your customer service skills and it will decrease the tension for everyone.