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Conflict Resolution Strategies in the Dental Practice, Part 2: Employee vs. Patient

May 16, 2019

Author: Ryder Waldron DDS

In part one of this series about conflict in the dental office, we covered how to defuse tense situations between employees. As you know, misunderstandings with patients can crop up just as easily as they sometimes do between coworkers, so here we'll address handling patient conflict resolution.

Most conflicts between dentists and their patients are preventable. Dental professionals are taught the clinical skills to provide patient care, but we are not always taught the communication skills to help avoid and fix disputes. Check out these tips on how to prevent and resolve conflict in the workplace, build rapport with patients and be a great oral health partner.

Build a Strong Foundation

Conflicts are less likely to occur when patients have confidence in their dentist. A strong relationship between you and your patient should begin with laying a foundation of trust at each patient's first appointment.

Initiate positive communication before you need to make any oral care recommendations. Get to know each patient on a personal level: Ask about their job, hobbies and their family. (Be mindful of the type of questions you ask, as there is a line between a friendly chat and perceived intrusiveness.) Keep detailed notes in patients' charts so that you can quickly remind yourself before each appointment.

Offer Clear Explanations

While you are working to build a relationship with your patients, there are things you can do at each appointment to minimize the risk of conflict. Before each procedure, be very clear in explaining to the patient what you will be doing. Make them aware of any complications you foresee and any potential risks.

After each procedure, be very honest with the patient about what they can expect with post-op pain, any other potential issues and future treatment plans. Clear explanations can help to prevent the need for patient conflict resolution in the first place. Finally, an after-hours call to see how a patient is feeling after treatment goes a long way in showing how much you care.

Unrealistic Expectations

Before coming to your office, patients may have seen TV commercials or print ads promising that it is possible to quickly and painlessly correct years of oral health neglect. Before starting any treatment, it is imperative to set realistic expectations.

For example, many patients see dentures as an exact replacement for natural teeth, but dental professionals know that dentures are far from perfect. Make sure patients know and understand what they can expect from their dentures before you begin treatment, and first obtain written informed consent. Once you have completed treatment, send them home with printed instructions to reinforce those expectations and with instructions on caring for their dentures.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to avoid all conflict. The following are two of the common dentist-patient disagreements that can occur, together with tips on how to resolve these conflicts.

Scenario 1: Treatment Failure

It is impractical to expect all dental work to last forever, and sometimes a prosthetic or procedure fails unexpectedly. If a patient has a complaint about a failure, first apologize for the inconvenience or discomfort they have had to endure. An apology often goes a long way in easing the tension between a dentist and patient. Ask the patient to describe the complications they are having and when they began. Try to determine the cause, and whether or not it is an unrelated issue.

After you assess the problem either over the phone or in person, lead the patient to a productive discussion on the next steps for treatment. For example, if a filling will not stay in a tooth, you can discuss other options for treating this tooth. Knowing you have a solution in mind for the problem may also help defuse a tense situation.

Scenario 2: Post-Operative Pain

From the patient's point of view, they may not expect to have pain after a tooth has been "fixed." But as a dental professional, you know that post-op pain is quite possible.

Offer patients written and verbal post-op instructions to manage expectations of how long pain should last, how severe it might be, and what can be done to alleviate the pain. If a patient calls your office because of discomfort or pain after a procedure, be sympathetic and assure them that you will do what you can to help them, which may include seeing them in your office as soon as possible. Showing a patient that you care can quickly calm a potentially uncomfortable situation.

Handling Formal Complaints

If a patient makes a complaint to your office, whether by phone, letter or in person, I find it best to call that patient to discuss their issue as soon as possible. This way their irritation doesn't fester and your stress doesn't build. These patient conflict resolution conversations can be uncomfortable, but dealing with the awkwardness now may head off a patient's social media rampage later. Many times the patient just wants to be heard and to vent their frustrations, and the two of you can come to an amicable solution.

Conflicts with patients are likely to happen throughout a dental professional's career. With empathetic and clear communication, these conflicts can usually be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone involved before they have a chance to escalate.

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