Kate Scheer explains how to convert tricky patients into loyal fans

Difficult patients can make work feel like a nightmare. This is particularly relevant considering the current dentolegal landscape, which has seen many practitioners overwhelmed by layers of red tape when faced with the possibility of a complaint. Clinicians aim to accommodate everyone, but with some patients, this can be incredibly difficult to do.

Challenging behaviour can be detrimental to the patient-practitioner relationship, creating a communication barrier that prevents either party from benefitting from the interaction. It is vital to learn how to engage with difficult patients, as this will ultimately influence their decision to return to the practice. So, what can dental professionals do to manage these patients?   

Active listening

Criticism is never pleasant, but unless you listen to a patient complaint, any problems they have will remain unresolved. This might sound obvious, but some clinicians may be cautious about treating a patient, out of fear that any treatment provided will be met with hostility. If the patient believes they have been neglected, the clinician is at risk of litigation. 

For instance, you might have a patient that persistently complains of dental pain following hygiene appointments. As a result, the patient avoids routine appointments and ignores any oral hygiene guidance and advice you provide, which leads to an accumulation of calculus on their teeth. When the patient eventually decides to attend, they respond negatively towards you, even though you are doing nothing different and have provided the same high quality service to other patients who have not experienced any problems themselves.

Naturally, this is frustrating, so you might avoid confronting them on the issue. This persistent lack of communication, however, means you remain oblivious to the fact that the patient actually suffers from extreme tooth sensitivity, which is exacerbated each time you treat their teeth. As practitioners know, this is an issue that can be effectively addressed through various treatments, but unless the patient’s grievances are fully shared and acknowledged, you are unable to help. That is why it is always essential to go out of your way to engage with even the most difficult patients, regardless of how apprehensive you might feel.

Stay calm

It is important not to let your anger or frustration get the better of you, as this not only misrepresents you and your practice, but also encourages the patient to react negatively. Your dialogue, temperament and verbal approach are key elements of communicating successfully, so ensure you are calm but assertive. As part of this process, it is crucial to offer the patient space to express their concerns and explain how you can make the treatment experience better for them. Employing this strategy is necessary in order to positively influence the patient-practitioner relationship and achieve patient compliance.

Following this, ensure you modify treatment to suit their preferences. For a difficult patient with tooth sensitivity, for example, professional cleaning may require a longer appointment. This will enable you to address their comfort and explain each stage of the proposed procedure, so that the patient understands what to expect. You could also consider investing in a system that does not rely on the use of invasive instruments that can prove uncomfortable for the patient.

Switching to an innovative system, such as the Tigon+ ultrasonic piezo scaler from W&H, for instance, means you can use pleasantly warm fluid to prevent irritation.

By investing in modern solutions and approaching difficult patients with a pragmatic attitude, you can achieve the clinical results the patient deserves. You can also open up a positive line of discussion where you can demonstrate how you have taken steps to improve the overall treatment experience for the patient, who is more likely to respect the effort you invested in their comfort.

Gaining fans

Evidently, there is nothing more frustrating than dealing with a non-compliant patient, but regardless of how difficult they can be to interact with, it is vital to remember that they are not any less deserving of high quality dental care. Moreover, the experience of treating a difficult patient can be extremely worthwhile if you are able to successfully resolve any issues they have.

By doing this, you increase the chances of earning the patient’s trust and in return, the patient is more likely to appreciate your services. This ultimately converts strangers into loyal patients who can help grow your business.

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