17 Mar 2023  •  Blog, Practice Management  •  6min read By  • Michael Bentley

How to set ground rules to handle aggressive patients

As the issues around access to dentistry show no signs of being solved, more patients are venting their frustration on practice team members. Verbal, and sometimes physical aggression is becoming something front of house staff are being subjected to more frequently. Dental coach, Michael Bentley, shares some hints on how to deal with this type of situation and suggests introducing a patient charter.

For me, the first step for the practice has got to be that there is a policy of zero tolerance to aggressive behaviour that is endorsed by the practice senior management and owner. This approach needs to be formally discussed with all team members so that they know if they experience aggressive behaviour from patients, then they have confirmation from the practice that it’s not to be accepted. Once that’s been done, then you can start taking other steps.

Policies and systems

In which case, the next step is to put in place another policy or system which would outline the rules of being a patient at the practice. You then need to communicate that system to your patients. And I think it’s high time really that most practices did this. We have gone through such a strange period of having to ask our patients to adhere to conditions they weren’t used to. Now, as we’ve come out of COVID and are getting back to the way things used to be, we need to remind patients of what behaviour is acceptable again. We need to be saying, “These are the cultures that you need to adopt when you are at the practice.”

So, the sorts of things you will be sharing will be a statement such as, ‘As a patient team, we will treat you with respect and courtesy and we expect the same from you. We won’t show you aggressive behaviour, we won’t use inappropriate tone or inappropriate language and therefore we expect the same from you in return. So, if you do use aggressive tones with us, we are going to inform you that is not part of the culture of our practice. And therefore, if you don’t stop using that aggressive tone, then we will no longer be able to see you as a patient at the practice.’

Communicate it to everyone

There are several ways of communicating this message to your patients. One way would be through a newsletter. As a practice, we used to send out a lot of newsletters through the post to our patients. That was because we had all of the addresses on file, but not necessarily their email addresses.

However, one of the benefits of COVID is that most practices now probably have 90% to 95% of their files with an email address on it. Which means you can now design a digital newsletter. Practice Plan can also help you with that. I think people believe it’s going to be difficult to send an eshot to all their patients, but it’s not. All you need is the information to put in there and then allow somebody else to take on the design work.

As part of that newsletter, you can then start to talk through what I call a patient charter. This says something along the lines of ‘We pride ourselves on making you feel comfortable when you visit our practice and when we’re communicating with you, whether in a written format or in person. We have very high expectations of ourselves as a team to get everything right for you. We may on occasion do or say something that does not sit right with you, and we learn from any miscommunications. Therefore, in return, we ask the following of you…’

And that allows you then to design a list of all the things that you expect patients to do for you and what you will do for them in return. For every practice it will be different depending on the culture that you have and what you will and will not accept.

It’s also important that you have your systems available for all patients within the practice. If you know that somebody doesn’t have an email address or they need it in another language, then you need to have some printed versions of the newsletter, or your policy available. That means you can hand them the update from the practice, or the policy, as they come in for their appointments.

As well as the policy, I would include a few other things so patients don’t feel like they’ve done something wrong. It’s not about that, it’s about communicating your policy to everyone.

Setting expectations

A patient charter, or cultures about patients, are not just about aggressive behaviour. A patient charter also asks them to do other things as well. Such as: ‘please be open and honest with us at all times.’ You can put other things in here, too such as:

  • We ask, and we expect you to be on time for your dental appointment and in return we will see you on time for your appointment.
  • If you want to reserve an appointment out of the diary, we will be taking a reservation payment from you for that.
  • You will be booked for an allocated amount of time in the diary. Please respect that that is your time, and if we run out of time during your appointment, we may need to book you another so as not delay our other patients.
  • We will continually ask for your feedback as part of dealing with you correctly.

You can incorporate aggressive behaviour, tonality and body language within a list of lots of other things. That way the patient doesn’t feel like you’re just concentrating on the negatives and that it’s a holistic viewpoint of all the different things that we expect from them, and what we will do in return.

About Michael

Michael Bentley has over 20 years’ experience within the dental industry, starting out as a practice manager before moving on to being a dental nurse, treatment coordinator and becoming GDC and DCP registered.

Michael now works as a patient experience and complaints manager in a thriving practice, as well as working as a dental business consultant. All this combined grass-roots knowledge has given Michael a deep understanding of how you are feeling and the challenges you face day-to-day.

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