How To Work With Difficult Patients

If you’ve been in practice for any length of time, you know that business is not just about providing services, generating revenue, or effective marketing. More than anything else, business is about people.

All in all, working with the public can be most rewarding. It feels great when you’ve been able to help someone. It boosts your self-esteem and gives you a warm fuzzy feeling when you’ve been able to make a difference in someone’s life.

In general, most people are easy to work with. They are friendly, polite, and overall non-assuming. They come to your practice, get seen, and schedule their next appointment. And that’s it. No problems or complaints.

1% Is All It Takes

But then, of course, there is the 1%… They too come to your practice and get seen, but that’s where it ends.

It’s the 1% of patients that cause most of the problems for your staff and perhaps yourself. They tend to complain about… whatever. They are hard to please and often difficult to work with.

These are the people responsible for the bulk of your customer service issues. And this is when working with people can turn into a real pain.

Ask anyone who has worked the front desk of a clinic for any length of time. Chances are they could tell stories that would make your hair stand up.

It’s fairly common for people to be rude to the person at the front desk.

The unlucky person at the front desk deals with nasty comments and remarks. And at times, they meet outright hostility when someone has to wait a long time or is asked to pay a bill.

Of course, a person might be hard to deal with because they’re upset, hurting, or just plain tired. And in all reality, there are also those times when a patient brings up a valid complaint or concern.

On A Mission…

But there are also those times when someone seems to be on a mission to make your life miserable. No matter what you say or do, he or she cannot be appeased.

After all, they’re on a mission… out to get you!

But we all know, the customer is far from always being right. It’s generally best to work with upset customers rather than to alienate them even further.

Being diplomatic proves to be far more productive for both patients and clinic staff alike. Good customer service skills are vital to “keeping the peace.” That’s if you want to continue working with a particular patient.

Three Core Skills

There are three core customer service skills most helpful when defusing a potentially explosive situation or when working with people in general.

Let’s take a look at what these three skills are and why they’re so important.

1. Listening

Really listening to when a patient has a concern or complaint is so important. And It doesn’t matter if you think their concern is valid or not.

Often, the simple act of listening when someone raises a concern or has a complaint will defuse the situation altogether.

So, whenever someone is upset or frustrated, make sure you stop what you’re doing and give them your undivided attention. When you really listen, you’ll also get a deeper understanding of what’s important to them and why they’re upset.

Listening to the other person opens the dialog. If nothing else, it’ll make the person feel heard and understood. And from that, a solution agreeable to both sides might be found.

2. Staying Calm

If you find yourself engaged in a conflict with a patient, it’s important that you remain calm. Sometimes this may be very difficult to do.

But if you find yourself or a member of your staff in the middle of an explosive situation, take a moment to step aside so you can keep your cool. If necessary, ask someone else to step in for you to bring the conflict to a resolution.

No matter how upset or inappropriate the other person behaves, don’t get pulled into doing the same. It’ll serve no other purpose than to make the situation worse, leading nowhere.

3. Patience

Whenever you have an unhappy patient in your office, don’t rush them. Allow them time to fully explain what they’re upset about. It’ll demonstrate you take their concerns seriously and that you’ll listen.

Whatever you do, don’t hurry someone when they are upset or angry. Doing so will make things worse and decrease the chance for a quick, favorable resolution.

Patience is incredibly important when dealing with people, including your customers. When you lack patience, when you rush people, it also tends to escalate your customers’ impatience. A perfect recipe for a full-blown confrontation.

But when you take your time, stay calm and listen to what is being said, the chances of ending the conflict with a positive resolution go up. Hopefully, it’ll be one that is agreeable to both you and your patient.

Here is what to do next:

  1. Review your current clinic policies. How does your office handle conflicts with patients? How is the approach working for you? Does it need to be revised or adjusted?
  2. Train your staff. In the event of a conflict with a patient, everybody in the office should know what to do. Your staff should be trained to support and help each other. The ultimate goal should also be bringing the conflict to an agreeable resolution.


By Johanna Hofmann, MBA, a regular contributor to the NPBusiness blog and author of “Smart Business Planning for Clinicians.



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