10 Ways To Deal With Angry Patients and Why You Definitely Should
By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer
When patients take their grievances out on their healthcare provider, it can be frustrating—not only for the provider but also for the administration.
More than ever before, healthcare organizations have to worry about the threat of legal action.
Today’s healthcare consumers expect much more out of their patient experience—from online appointment booking and waiting room amenities to every interaction with front office staff and providers.
Healthcare providers, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare professionals, encounter different scenarios daily. They must understand how to quickly and effectively navigate unexpected situations, like defusing an angry or frustrated patient.
Think of this article as a fire extinguisher of sorts, a tool to help your providers and medical professionals learn how to deal with angry patients successfully.
A good, solid plan can help your medical teams quickly diffuse challenging situations, work toward a satisfactory outcome for everyone, and preserve the patient-provider relationship.
While I hope your providers never need advice for dealing with angry patients, it’s much better to be prepared.
Most, if not all, healthcare providers will face a difficult situation involving an unhappy patient at least once in their career.
And unfortunately, it’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN.
To continue the fire extinguisher analogy, the operative words are "be prepared in advance." If you wait for something (or someone) to burst into flames—it's already too late.
Set your providers up for success with a defined policy and procedure that teaches them how to deal with angry patients. In fact, train all consumer-facing employees to ensure they understand how to quickly identify issues, take action, and follow the established resolution process.
Perhaps healthcare's helpful and healing nature keeps consumers happier than in retail situations or other industries. Typically, patients like their providers and are willing to provide positive reviews and comments about their experience.
However, there can be a quiet and dangerous downside. Studies show unhappy patients often leave a medical practice without saying anything. They simply take their business elsewhere.
Don’t risk losing patients.
Instead, encourage providers to tune into their patient’s feelings, ask about their needs and overall satisfaction, and regularly use communication channels (e.g., phone surveys, written surveys, online surveys, and emails) to measure patient satisfaction, proactively identify issues, and offer positive solutions.
Consider these ten high-level ways your medical teams can learn how to deal with angry patients when defining your policy and procedure:
1. Tune-in early. Remind medical teams to always be on the lookout for signals of discontent or distress. Even smaller hints may be early warning flags and deserve extra attention. When providers can quickly spot signs of mounting pressure, they can more easily diffuse a problem before it becomes an explosion.
Is the temperature rising? Is voice or inflection going up? Stop what you’re doing and…
2. Actively listen. Stop what you’re doing, make eye contact, repeat their problems or concerns, and ask clarifying questions if needed. It may or may not be possible to resolve their issue immediately, but actively listening to their problems, issues, or concerns is disarming and often diffuses the situation.
3. Remain calm. Resist all temptation to meet the consumer’s level of agitation. Instead, medical professionals should be trained to maintain a purposefully calm, polite, and empathetic exterior to help control the situation and reduce everyone’s level of excitement or agitation.
4. Start with “I’m sorry.” These are the two most disarming words in any personal encounter. They immediately let unhappy people know they have your attention. The actual problem resolution is still to come, but simply saying the words opens the door to a positive conversation.
5. Acknowledge feelings. People want to be heard and understood. Encourage providers to identify what sparked their anger and acknowledge their feelings. It’s important to show healthcare consumers they are heard and understood.
6. Position providers as an ally—not an adversary. Providers must reassure upset consumers that they’re here to help find an answer to the problem or resolve the issue as quickly as possible.
7. Find options, and suggest solutions. Sometimes, great upset can be extinguished by a simple solution. A helpful tactic is to ask the consumer if they have a resolution in mind. (It might be surprising just how easy it is.) Alternatively, suggest two options for their consideration. Having a choice or some say about the outcome may help resolve the issue quickly and satisfactorily.
8. Act quickly. Nobody likes bad news or dealing with problems. But avoidance makes matters worse. The longer a consumer is frustrated by an issue, the greater their anger or upset. In addition to the initial problem, they feel ignored or neglected.
Encourage your providers and medical teams to figure out how to deal with angry patients quickly and jump in with possible resolutions before the fire spreads.
9. Empower everyone. Problems can appear at any time, at any contact point. Provide training for all consumer-facing staff and, whenever possible, authorize them to resolve issues quickly—without having to seek guidance from a "higher authority."
There are times when common sense is a better course than rigid policy or procedure.
10. Learn from fixing the problem. Sometimes, consumer complaints are unreasonable or unjustified. But it's important to recognize that there are genuine problems that sometimes need a long-term or permanent solution. The perspective of the unhappy healthcare consumer may provide an opportunity to learn and improve, so it's essential to take a deeper look. Don't be defensive or self-protective.
Candidly consider how to adjust, improve, and permanently avoid the same problem in the future.
Bill Gates may not have originated this idea, but this quote is a spot-on business lesson, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”
Or, as Ralph Nader said, “Your best teacher is your last mistake.”
You can drive effective service improvements when you learn from the complaints you receive.
Angry or unhappy patients provide great insight for improvements—even if they’re not correct or even reasonable. Listening to and learning from these grievances are valuable moments that can protect your patient base, enhance your reputation, and preserve a patient relationship.
Arm your medical teams with the knowledge they need to learn how to deal with angry patients, de-escalate intense situations, calmly restore communication, find a way to fix the issue or problem, and make lasting changes that build stronger patient relationships.
To paraphrase a quote from Dale Carnegie, anyone can criticize, condemn, and complain, but it takes character and self-control to truly understand and improve.