Skip to main content
Toggle Menu of ADA WebSites
ADA Websites
Toggle Search Area
Toggle Menu

It's Not Personal: Dealing with Difficult Patients

empty dental chair

You love some patients when they come into the office. You love other patients more when they’re leaving.

Patients can be difficult in a number of ways. Some are angry and/or resistant to care. A patient can be rude or combative because they are in pain. It could also be a result of medical condition such as a drug withdrawal or psychiatric disability.

Empathizing with a patient is often a good way to alleviate a tense situation. Allow a patient to express any concerns or ask questions uninterrupted and discuss the situation with them as clearly as possible.  If at any point with an angry patient you sense a threat of imminent potential physical harm to you or staff, remove yourself and others from harm’s way and promptly notify law enforcement (but avoid disclosing information about the patient unless permitted by HIPAA or applicable state law, as applicable).

Other patients may try to manipulate you into giving them what they want even if, in your professional judgment, it is not warranted. Manipulative patients may use guilt or threats. The key to dealing with such patients is the art of saying no. They may request a drug that they don’t need or a procedure that is inappropriate. Give the patient an honest opinion and explanation along with a firm refusal.

If a patient is angry about an unexpected outcome, an apology can go a long way toward easing patient frustration. A patient who sues for negligence may try to use an apology as an admission. However, “apology laws” in some states prevent certain apologies from being admitted used in a negligence trial. Talk to your professional liability carrier and find out whether your state has an apology law, and, if so, what kinds of apologies it protects.

Patients are not always the source of a difficult encounter. Dentists should reflect on how their attitudes, moods, or stress levels may trigger a bad patient interaction. Don’t underestimate the positive difference that good interpersonal skills can have on a situation. It can be easy to lose your temper when a patient is being belligerent, but engaging in conflict is never a good idea. A calm, reassuring tone can sometimes alleviate a tense situation.

The ADA Practical Guide to Creating and Updating an Employee Policy Manual from the ADA Catalog offers information on how to include a staff policy for how to handle difficult patients to your office manual.