Thursday Troubleshooter: Dental front office staff says angry patient out of line

This dental front office staff was caught off guard by the anger of a parent of one of their patients. The dentist was not in the office to explain the situation. What can the front office do in the future?

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QUESTION: I want to ask how to deal with patients who start treatment, and halfway through they’re angry that their temporary filling broke, for example, and they blame the dentist for doing a bad job? I’m a little biased when it comes to patients complaining about my dentist because I know what a wonderful dentist she is. This particular patient was demanding his money back for the treatment on his daughter and was yelling in front of other patients. I honestly did not know how to handle him. The dentist was off that evening so there was no way she could have seen his daughter at that moment. The daughter claimed she had not eaten anything hard yet her tooth broke in half.

I would really appreciate your input in these kinds of situations. As the practice manager I should be able to handle these issues better, but I was really caught off guard.

ANSWER FROM KYLE SUMMERFORD, Editor of Dental Assisting & Office Manager Digest and founder of DDSGuru:
It is important to understand the mechanics of each procedure in order to defend or uphold your dentist’s work. It would also be helpful to know how long the patient waited before completing the second course of root canal treatment or crowning of the tooth.

I will give a short step-by-step script and example as to how I would handle this situation.

The first thing to do is to isolate the parent/patient from others in the waiting room or other operatories who can overhear the disgruntled patient or parent’s concerns. Never discuss an angry patient’s concerns and never discuss a patient’s financials in front of other patients.

Once the patient or parent is isolated, explain that your dentist took every measure possible to save the tooth and prevent further costly treatments, such as extraction, bone grafts, and implants, and that the dentist offered a more conservative approach, which was root canal.

Also explain that a tooth that has undergone a root canal is like a hollow shell, similar to a peanut shell. Explain that depending on how much decay was present at the start of the root canal, sometimes a tooth can fracture, which leads to an extraction, regardless of whether the patient ate hard foods or soft foods afterwards.

Teeth can fracture after a root canal, especially if a patient waits too long to come back for a post/core and crown. In cases where the patient does not come back soon enough to have the tooth completed, this alone can uphold your defense as to why the tooth fractured. Explain that it is only in a temporary setting and it must be completed sooner rather than later.

Most importantly, make sure you have the patient sign beforehand a Consent form for root canal treatment that outlines the pros, cons, and possible undesired outcomes of treatment. The patient should read and sign the consent form prior to any treatment, and the office should retain the forms in the patient’s file for at least 10 years.

Once you get angry patients isolated, it is important to try to listen to them calmly and take their complaints seriously. Often once they calm down they'll listen to your explanation and realize they might have overreacted. The goal is for them to leave calm and satisfied, feeling like they were listened to and understood, and that there is a solution to their problem.

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