Mrs. Smith came to see you a month ago with a vague problem that you were unable to find a definitive diagnosis for. Unfortunately, she “just wanted it fixed” but you couldn’t find anything to “fix”. She was rather disagreeable and defiant, in general, and you had the feeling she would be difficult to work with. Your communication with her felt strained. On the other hand, she was overly nice to your team. Because you were unable to find anything that you saw as needing immediate attention and unable to make a diagnosis, she agreed with you to wait a while longer to see if anything developed or if it would just go away. As you know, dentistry is still very much an art, although our patients don’t generally see it that way.
The following week, her husband came to you for the first time, and he needed quite a bit of dental care. You completed your evaluation and discussed with him your findings, answered all of his questions, and ultimately agreed upon a course of action. He was pleased and schedule a time to return to start treatment. You thought nothing of your time with him, as it all went so smoothly, and you even sent his wife a thank you note for referring him to you.
Several weeks pass and over a weekend, Mrs. Smith calls to cancel her husband’s appointment, leaving a message on your answering machine and says that she will also never be coming back to you, as you were rude to her.
She then calls again Monday morning to make sure her message was received, as she didn’t want the time that had been scheduled for her husband to take up the time someone else could use. She also mentions she was calling her insurance company to complain about you.
Sound familiar, either vaguely or accurately?
You feel a sense that you should do something, so do you:
- Ask your receptionist/scheduling coordinator to call her to see what the problem is?
- Send her a card apologizing for your actions (even though you don’t recall you were rude at all)?
- Ask someone on your team to call the husband and try to reschedule him?
- Place them both as “inactive” and forget about it?
- Write a letter to Mrs. Smith defending yourself?
If you’re thinking “none of the above” to yourself, great work!
The question is, what is the source of what was going on? It’s likely true that Mrs. Smith wanted her concern dealt with immediately, and when you couldn’t do that, it made her mad, and you missed the clues that she needed more discussion and choices besides what you gave her. She then likely told her husband he shouldn’t go back to “that dentist,” and he went along with her decision. (After all, he had avoided receiving dental care a long time anyway, so why start receiving it now?)
There are several points that need addressing, and each of these can be very useful in any situation, so let me review them here.
- Communication breakdown. There was a breakdown in communication when the patient came in, and the expectation she had was clearly not met. Be sure to ask lots of open-ended questions to get a clear and accurate picture of what is going on and any history associated with it. By doing so, along with taking your time, looking at the patient, showing concern, and being curious to find the problem and one or more solutions, people are generally understanding if you cannot resolve their issue on the spot. People want to know you care and understand more than anything else. They accept that the possible problems or solutions may not be readily apparent. Put yourself in their shoes; how would you want to feel?
- Ego control. Protecting our egos (yes, we all have them) does little good in most any situation. Reacting to something that is said negatively about us only fuels a fire. Sometimes people just need to get things off their chest because they’re frustrated. Let them. After some time has passed, maybe a few days or a week, personally contact them to check on them to see if there is anything you can do to help. Set your ego aside, use a calm and caring voice, and ask simple, open-ended questions, such as “Mrs. Smith, I know I was unable to help you at your last visit, but I haven’t given up on trying to help you. Has anything changed that might help me help you?” You may be greeted coldly and without any interest in working with you further, but at least you have shown care and concern and made the attempt to help her, and this time consciously know you were not rude to her. After all, maybe you were having a rough day that day and you actually were rude.
- Avoid anxiety getting the best of you. Is she going to contact your insurance company? Likely not. After all, what can the insurance company do or will they do? Not much, that’s for sure. Even if you’re reported to your state dental board, most boards will ask more questions and be on your side with such a complaint such as “the doctor was rude to me”. You can’t control what people will do, but you can influence what they might do by being proactive in the first place. People rarely file complaints, say negative things, or even try to sue you if they like you. So, develop a trusting and caring relationship from the very beginning – you’ll sleep much better at night. Plus, you’re less likely to have to respond to a negative review on social media, which is often used as a platform for people to vent their frustrations, even if it’s unwarranted.
- Never delegate a team member to investigate a situation or even tried to resolve a problem on your behalf. Remember, you are responsible for the actions of your team (vicarious liability), so you’re the one that needs to show leadership and set the tone for dealing with any patient who is disgruntled. Plus, avoid being passive about sending a card or letter to try to “patch things up”. Make every attempt to contact the patient yourself so at least you know in your heart you did what you could, even if you did make a mistake. And lastly, don’t just ignore the situation and pretend it didn’t happen. Not only will you not learn anything about yourself, but it also shows your team that your leadership and integrity might be hard to feel good about.
- Take the professional, moral, and ethical actions. Since you were unable to find a solution, maybe another set of eyes and ears can discover the problem. Your ego really has to take a back seat on this, because we all want to know the answer to everything. Well, you can’t and don’t. Be sure to get help when you need to; don’t leave your patient hanging.
Questions? Comments? Want help with a situation? Give me a call or send me an email, as I’d love to coach you through a situation. Dentistry is a great profession, and we do wonderful things for people. Having that one “Mrs. Smith” lingering out there mad at you and saying negative things about you can ruin your day, week, month or even longer, and there’s no need for it to happen if you learn and use the right skills.