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Troubleshooter: Dealing with dental patients who complain simply to complain

Aug. 14, 2022
Most dental team members are familiar with those patients—the ones who always find something to complain about no matter how well treatment went. What's a good way to handle these people's whining?

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Question: We have several patients lately who grumble and complain just for the sake of complaining. Our team has discussed some of them among ourselves and agreed they’re just grumpy and like to complain. “I feel like the bleeding is excessive” or, “I have such incredible sensitivity after whitening.” We always inform patients about possible discomforts, but these people continue to whine appointment after appointment. We patiently assure them that what they’re experiencing is normal, yet they don’t want to hear it. They might even be complaining to their family and friends. How would you advise we work with these difficult patients?

Answer from Anna Maria Yiannikos, DDS, MSc:

My office has these patients too, and of course it’s natural if you and your team become upset or frustrated with them. This is absolutely normal, as long as you keep your feelings to yourselves. The important thing is to deal with them compassionately, immediately, and effectively, and to keep them as patients.

Here are five steps you can apply to get successful results.

1. When they start to whine, breathe. I know, it’s hard not to get angry with them, but envision yourself as the conductor of an orchestra responsible for guiding them along on the path you desire.

2. Listen to them and hear them out.

3. Act accordingly. What do you think is the patient’s real problem? Maybe someone just wants to be listened to and pampered a little bit. Or the person wants his or her “problem” to be resolved with your advice, “Don’t rinse for six hours,” or a prescription, “Use this cream and it will reduce the sensitivity.”

Of course most patients have nothing to complain about because everything is normal, but you can never say that to them! Give complainers something so they will feel that their “problems” are being acknowledged and will be resolved immediately by you, their trusted doctor.

4. Follow up with patients. We feel it is a must to call these patients to check on them before they have a chance to call our office and complain some more. By doing this we have the advantage of the upper hand in the conversation and we guide them toward the results we want.

5. When you call them, ask the right question. Don't ask, “Is everything all right?” Why don’t you ask that? Because most of the time these patients will start to complain again. Instead say, “I just called to check on you and make sure everything is OK.” By using this phrase you will not give them space or thought for more complaining.

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Editor's note: Originally posted in 2018; updated September 2022