Physicians, nurses, support staff and anyone else in a practice have all witnessed this scenario too many times: a patient gets frustrated and takes his or her anger, confusion, or worry out on you. How you handle an upset patient can quickly determine the difference between a successful or disastrous outcome. If you learn to recognize the signs – sudden behavior changes, clenched fists, a red face, tense jaw, increasingly loud voice – you can also become proficient in diffusing difficult situations.
First, take a deep breath! This calms you down and gives you a chance to consider your reaction, rather than abruptly responding to the anger in kind. We often regret actions we make in haste, and taking a few deep breaths can give you the presence of mind to respond with more compassion and less frustration.
It is also important to put the situation in perspective. Working in a medical practice inherently means your customers are sick, hurt and or scared about a diagnosis or condition. This isn't about you, so do your best to avoid taking the situation personally. When you can take a step back, you can give yourself the distance you need to calm the situation down.
While it may be difficult, do your best to suspend judgement, particularly since you may not know what exactly is motivating the behavior. Do not engage others during or after the event, but do obtain assistance from a supervisor as needed, particularly if the situation is escalating.
The following seven steps can help you handle upset patients in your practice:
If the situation requires follow up, ensure that the appropriate person or parties keep in touch with the patient to ensure the issue is resolved. Ultimately, patients want to be heard and understood – when you make the effort to listen, apologize and address the problem, you can effectively turn a negative interaction into a positive one.
Elizabeth Woodcock is the founder and principal of Woodcock & Associates. She has focused on medical practice operations and revenue cycle management for more than 25 years. She has led educational sessions for a multitude of national professional associations and specialty societies, and consulted for clients as diverse as a solo orthopaedic surgeon in rural Georgia to the Mayo Clinic. She is author or co-author of 17 best-selling practice management books, to include Mastering Patient Flow and The Physician Billing Process: Avoiding Potholes in the Road to Getting Paid. Elizabeth is a Fellow in the American College of Medical Practice Executives and a Certified Professional Coder. In addition to a Bachelor of Arts from Duke University, she completed a Master of Business Administration in healthcare management from The Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently a doctoral student at the Bloomberg School of Public Health of Johns Hopkins University.
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