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Professionalism: How to Manage an “Unhappy Patient” Encounter

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 9:00 AM

Expert Advice, Practice Operations

Written by: Elizabeth Monroe

Case Study

Mrs. Smith is late for her appointment. The front desk receptionist kindly points out to Mrs. Smith that her appointment was at 1 p.m., not 1:30 p.m. Mrs. Smith then becomes upset. The receptionist actively listens, sympathizes, and offers options to help solve Mrs. Smith’s problem.

“I am so very sorry this happened to you, Mrs. Smith! I have notes that we confirmed the appointment for 1 p.m., but there must have been a mix-up somewhere. I completely understand your frustration. Let me see what I can do to help.”

After reviewing the schedule, the front desk person identifies a possible solution: “I have some good news, Mrs. Smith. We had a cancellation at 2:15 p.m. If you like, I can put you in that time slot, so you can be seen today. If that doesn’t work, we can reschedule you for a different day. What would be best for you? Oh, and we do have coffee and cookies if you need a snack while you wait.”

After discussing the options with her driver, Mrs. Smith determines that she would rather stay and have her appointment at 2:15 p.m., since she already made the trip to the clinic.

Elizabeth Monroe
Senior consultant

Even with the best intentions, miscommunication can happen that leaves a patient unhappy. In these instances, customer service professionals have an opportunity to create a positive outcome by incorporating some of the following techniques into their interactions with patients.

Actively listen. Listen carefully to patients to understand the issue from their perspective. Repeat the problem back to confirm that you heard the concern correctly.

Sympathize. Once you have heard the patient, offer sympathy and understanding. Put yourself in the patient's shoes; see the situation from the patient's perspective.

Offer Options. When patients feel they have been heard (and understood), they are more open to discussing solutions. Do everything possible to provide alternatives. Patients want to feel that they have a choice. Choices make patients more open to an option that can benefit them and the practice.

Professionalism is Essential

Staff professionalism when providing solutions can help patients feel respected and appreciated. While not every scenario can go as smoothly as Mrs. Smith’s, patients will have a better response when met with active listening, sympathy, and options.

YOUR TURN: How do you turn a potentially problematic patient experience into a positive one? Please leave your response in the comment section below. Thank you.


  • Ryan Miller, Etna Interactive president said Reply

    Great post Elizabeth, and I'm excited to see discussion on this topic. The most powerful phrase, in my opinion, in your sample dialogue is, "Let me see what I can do to help." When our customer-facing teammates can orient themselves toward a solution and ally themselves with the patient, they can work wonders.

  • Susan Cole, Mabrie Facial Cosemtic - Practice Manager said Reply

    Thank you for the great post. It seems so simple, but negative patient encounters can easily escalate without practice philosophy. I'll be sending this out to my whole team for extended training.

  • Nancy Flower, CPSS said Reply

    Hi Elizabeth,
    Thank you so much for sharing this information. We have new staff on board and this will help them with this type of situation. I will definitely be sharing this with my front office staff.

  • Tammie Garmire said Reply

    The perfect example of active listening and finding a solution that works not only for the patient and her transportation, but also the practice.

  • Laura Johnston said Reply

    Thank you for the well-worded blog post. It has great reminders.

    Our boss also always reminds us that even if we are not exactly "sorry" (because we may or may not have been at fault) saying "I'm so sorry" really means "I am so sorry for the situation" or "I am so sorry this happened." As human beings, we can relate to another person at that level even if the office thinks we did not make a mistake (and WE ARE HUMAN TOO, we can definitely make a mistake).

    I had the occasion to be a new patient at an orthopedic office a couple of years ago and had to stifle a laugh when the lady at the front desk tried to find me at 8:15 on the doctor's schedule. Her face changed, and I asked with a smile, "Am I not on the schedule?" She looked half-horrified and VERY sorry (it was exactly the same look I have when I truly think we HAVE made a mistake). She immediately put me back on the schedule (fortunately it was open) and took care of me. Having been on the other side makes me even more appreciative of the things our patients go through AND the looks and tone of voice we use when taking care of our patients.

    Again, my thanks for the article/blog post.

  • Laura E said Reply

    Indeed, active listening and compassion are important in patient interaction. Our goal is to solve the problem/not turn a patient away. It's always important to provide the best service/solution to the patient, even if we have to go above and beyond at times to account for miscommunications and transportation issues.

  • Sheila Webster said Reply

    Turning a problematic patient experience into a positive resolution definitely involves listing to the patient and letting the patient get his/her frustrations out. Then calmly and professionally let the patient know that you will do your best to resolve the issue. Let the patient know that you are working diligently to help. All the while, keep the patient informed of your progress and continue to apologize. Also offering a coffee/snack and keeping that smile on your face always helps.

  • Dawn Woodward said Reply

    "Let me see what I can do to help." and "What would be best for you?" are two phrases I'm going to keep handy. Many times it all comes down to wording.

  • Diana C said Reply

    This really is a great read. I will be passing it along.

    When faced with this issue in our office, we try to be as accommodating as possible. Most of the time we are able to have both parties agree on something that works best for us and our patients' needs — after all we wouldn't be in practice without them!

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