Dealing with Difficult Patients: Tips for Dentists and Hygienists

‍Dealing with difficult patients at your dental practice is an important responsibility. Explore what to expect and how to de-escalate problems with respectful communication.

Dental Intelligence


March 15, 2023

Some patient encounters can place you and your dental staff in awkward situations. Still, you must learn to resolve these issues calmly to avoid hurting your reputation with other patients. Effective communication can be challenging to master, but it is essential for the success of your business.

Understanding the types of concerns patients may have and how to read verbal and nonverbal communication is a good place to start to navigate difficult conversations with patients.

What Types of Patients Are Common in Dental Practices?

You should not expect all of your patients to be happy and enthusiastic during their visits. Dental problems can cause irritability, stress, and anxiety for many people who come through your door. In extreme cases, these issues could result in loud patient outbursts in your office.

Suppose you have a patient who has a fear of dental offices. They may cry or scream during treatment. Patients may also become angry with your staff after learning their insurance won’t cover a specific treatment.

Knowing how to handle these difficult situations will keep you from receiving poor reviews or upsetting other patients in the office.

How Can Verbal and Nonverbal Communication Help You Navigate Difficult Patient Interactions?

Reading body language is essential when communicating with your patients. Even if a patient does not cry or yell, you may be able to read their emotions by observing some key signals.

For example, an anxious patient may shake or display a “thousand-yard-stare” — two coping mechanisms some people use to manage fear. Unhappy patients may cross their arms, scowl, or clench their teeth. Monitor these cues to determine your next action.

Take a deep breath before you approach your patient. A cool-headed response will always de-escalate a problem over a rash, heated exchange. Allow the conversation to be a two-way discussion by politely asking your patient to explain the problem they are experiencing.

Do your best to understand their perspective and respond accordingly. If a patient is late to their appointment and upset about the cancellation, acknowledge that this problem happens occasionally and offer to reschedule them for the next opening. Politely educate the patient by explaining why the cancellation is necessary to ensure that other patients in line remain on schedule.

Dealing with difficult patients can be an ongoing process for your dental practice. It may be a good idea to accommodate regularly problematic patients with extra resources and follow-ups.

Tips and Communication Strategies to De-Escalate Conversations with Difficult Patients

By following these best practices, you can deal with difficult patients, acknowledge their concerns, and provide quality care:

If a difficult patient tries arguing with your front desk staff or back office healthcare professionals, lead them into a private, one-on-one conversation. Removing them from a group setting makes the situation feel less confrontational.

How to Prepare Your Dental Office for Difficult Patients

Train your staff on how to communicate with patients professionally. You can schedule regular team meetings to discuss policies and strategies. Make sure that your team can balance phone calls, emails, and appointments to prevent delays that may upset patients.

Keep an eye on the morale of your employees. A happy staff will provide better, level-headed communication during difficult situations.

Communication Skills That Help You Maintain a Positive Reputation

Effective communication is an important aspect of dental care. With the right information, you can nurture a positive patient experience.

At Dental Intelligence, we can help you avoid dental patient communication mistakes. Contact us to discuss our state-of-the-art solutions for dealing with difficult patients and schedule a demo to see it in action.

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