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"I hate this dental patient." You aren't alone

April 2, 2023
Most dental professionals have had patients they strongly dislike. It's OK. It's natural. The trick is to face your feelings, know why someone pushes your buttons, and learn how to deal with it.

Most people in the dental profession have said it at one time or another: "I hate this patient." It's OK. It's natural. The trick is to face your feelings, know why someone pushes your buttons, and learn how to deal with it.

You feel it and you want to say it out loud, but it isn’t professional to do so. But it's OK to be honest with yourself. You can say it now: “I hate my patient.”

Wow. Do you feel a sense of release? Probably not. Why? Because you may have already shared this sentiment with your colleagues or family. It wasn’t building up like a volcano ready to erupt. But then it does, with lava spewing in an upward trajectory and flowing down the mountain. You’re wondering, “Why should I take the time to lay these cards on the table?” Put simply, because you need to. You need to be honest about the people you take care of. Don’t be fooled. If you really dislike someone, it can be a patient care issue.

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I’m not proposing that you tell you patients how you really feel about them—that could end some careers pretty quickly! But you need to be aware of what it is that causes some patients to press your buttons and behave like a bad rash, one that you keep scratching to relieve the itch, but it just gets worse and worse.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Are they always running late for your appointments?
  • Do they ever say thank you when you’re done with their treatment?
  • Do they complain … every … single … time … they are in your chair?
  • Do they talk rudely on their cell phone and waste your time?
  • Do they seem to look down on you?
  • Do they simply give you the creeps?
  • Are they demanding and unrealistic?
  • Do you dread seeing their name on your schedule?
  • Can you pinpoint why you don’t like them?

When patients get under your skin, you owe it to yourself to figure out why they bother you so much. I’m not saying to dump the patient, necessarily, although that could be merited sometimes. But sometimes figuring out what you don’t like about someone can be the start of solving the problem.

People push buttons. Some get a thrill out of it, and others don’t realize they’re doing it. There isn’t much you can do if you want to keep a patient. Always “delighting the customer” is not an easy path. The best strategy is to protect yourself and figure out why a patient bothers you so much. Find out if the person is that way with everyone in the practice. It might not be just you.

Personally, I can’t tolerate rude and obnoxious behavior. But sometimes in the “real” world I have no choice. I used to say, “They aren’t paying me enough to be abused like this.” But let’s be honest. Sometimes you have to put up with nonsense if you want to keep your job. Trying to keep patients happy is about keeping your job. Be aware of your triggers. Be aware if it is just the dynamic between you and that patient.

And just know that sometimes, you’re just going to really dislike a patient.

Editor's note: Originally posted in 2017 and updated regularly