Managing difficult calls with patients

difficult callsHazel Adams shares her tips on how to handle difficult calls with patients and what to do to ensure a prompt resolution.

How we communicate is key to resolving complaints successfully. Especially when dealing with challenging situations.

Your non-technical skills, such as communication and emotional intelligence, are just as critical as the treatment that you provide.

During a face-to-face meeting, you can depend on both your voice and body language; however, when communicating by telephone, you are reliant on your voice alone. You, therefore, need to have the right tone, clarity and pace.

There are many possible reasons for a patient’s challenging behaviour:

  • Anxiety and worry
  • Being in pain (dental or otherwise)
  • Feeling unwell
  • Feeling that expectations have not been met
  • Communication barriers.

These feelings may lead to the patient not listening, being abusive or threatening. Or at worse using physical violence.

If a patient’s behaviour is unacceptable, it is vital that you take immediate steps to minimise risk and ensure the safety of the patient and your dental team.

Prepare yourself

You need to contact a patient, and you know the call will be difficult. The patient is dissatisfied with the treatment received, and feels that expectations have not been met and is upset and angry.

What is important is that you prepare yourself for the call. Allow sufficient time for discussion. Avoid rushing or cutting a call short due to the next appointment or commitment.

Ensure that you are in a room where you cannot be interrupted or distracted by what is going on around you. Have all of the relevant information to hand for reference.

Stay in control

When you contact the patient, be empathetic and make it clear that you want to help.

Regardless of how the patient is behaving, do not react; remain calm and focus on moving forward. Be confident and stay in control.

If you are unhappy with the patient’s behaviour, make them aware of this and outline what is acceptable to you.

If the patient is angry, allow them to vent without interruption. However, try to listen to the concerns raised and make notes.

Actively listen and try to avoid the need to ask the patient to repeat information; this is likely to cause further frustration and may lead to the matter escalating. Instead, ask relevant questions which will allow you to get all the information you need to make a decision.

Use open questions, ie what, where, when, who and how; try to avoid ‘why’ questions, which can often sound accusatory. 

Prompt resolution

Accurate notes will allow you to summarise both during and at the end of the call. A good summary tells the patient that you have been listening and instils confidence in your ability to resolve the matter.

Agree next steps and follow through with agreed actions. Best case scenario is reaching an amicable resolution and the patient remains with the practice.

Dealing with difficult calls is not easy and does not come naturally to everyone. Therefore, ensure that your dental team have received basic training which will allow them to confidently deal with any situations that may arise.


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This article first ran in Private Dentistry magazine. You can read the latest issue of Private Dentistry magazine here.

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