6 tips to help you deal with hostile and obnoxious patients

Can you tell patients when they are being disrespectful of you or your time? Yes, says Lisa Newburger, LISW-S, but do it in a manner that doesn't offend anyone by using these six tips.

Nov 17th, 2011

By Lisa Newburger, LISW-S

Mrs. Fairchild walked into the room and plopped down in the dental chair. She started up immediately with ... “What took you so long? I can’t believe that you’re always running late. You do realize my time is v-e-r-y precious. I had to take off work to be here and now I’m wasting my PTO sitting in YOUR waiting room, because YOU are running late.”

Boy, she really nailed me this time. Not only was she complaining, but she also made me feel terrible. Have you ever felt this way, where it isn’t your fault and there is nothing you can do? It isn’t my fault that the patient before Mrs. Fairchild got caught in traffic and was late to our office. That delayed everything. What could I do?

“Mrs. Fairchild, I am really sorry about this. The patient before you was stuck in traffic. You are absolutely right. We should have called you and let you know there would be a delay.”

Now why would I say that? Because people sometimes need to hear an apology, even when it isn’t your fault. We all need to feel like someone hears our pain or troubles. This is a customer service issue. Even if you can’t fix the problem, knowing that you care or are trying to fix it will go a long way in reducing fallout. What is fallout? It is when Mrs. Fairchild goes to her fancy tennis club and complains about you to her friends. This is bad for business, no matter how you look at it.

Don’t take it personally. Who knows what really set off Mrs. Fairchild? It could be something in her personal life that has nothing to do with you. Why should that ruin your day?

What if your patient is just plain obnoxious? Is it appropriate to confront the person on his or her behavior? Talk about a dilemma. If you ignore the behavior, it continues. For example, if you have a patient who takes phone calls throughout the appointment, you can’t get your job done. Somehow his or her time on the phone is more important than your time providing a service. Perhaps your office can post a sign at the front desk asking patients not to use their cell phones while in the office. Or, politely ask inconsiderate patients if they would like to reschedule if this isn’t a good time for them. I wouldn’t worry about them doing that, because they already made it into your office. Who wants to reschedule and come back when they are the ones holding up the process?

Can you be honest with your patients? Can you tell them when they are being disrespectful of you or your time? The answer is yes. But you need to do it in a manner that doesn’t offend them or get you in trouble with your boss. Start by asking, “Is there anything I can do to make your visit to this office more comfortable? I know you are very busy and I want to make sure that you are happy with the care you are receiving. If there is a problem, please let me know what it is and how you would like it to be resolved.”

Is this kissing up? Absolutely. But so what? If it makes for a more pleasant work experience for you and resolves issues as they come up, is that a bad thing?

If you sense there is something personal about how this person is treating you, ask if the person would like to see another dental assistant. This should be a last resort as it is important to work through the issues. But if that can’t be done, offer this option or you may lose the patient from the practice.

The simple tips to changing obnoxious behaviors are:

  1. Apologize and try to resolve the problem.
  2. Listen to the patient and respect his or her frustrations.
  3. Don’t take it personally.
  4. Always be polite, but find creative ways to address this obnoxious behavior.
  5. In order to resolve the problem, address with the patient that there is a problem.
  6. Refer to another assistant if the patient has a personal grudge with you that can’t be resolved.


If all else fails, remember that you are the professional. You are not only representing yourself, but also your dental practice. If there is something you can do to fix problems, get creative and get the job done. This is about teamwork, from the front desk staff to the dentist. Remember, you are a key player on this team, and you are allowed to change obnoxious patient behavior.

Author bio
Lisa Newburger, LISW-S, a.k.a. Diana Directive, provides humorous ways to deal with difficult topics. Check out Diana’s webpage at www.discussdirectives.com.

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