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Dealing with Angry Patients

Dealing with Angry Patients

People are over IT! Whatever IT is … whether it’s wearing a mask, maintaining social distance, or following other safety protocols. As a result, some interactions with patients may be feeling a little more challenging these days, leaving exasperated practice personnel like yourself wondering where to turn.

When you find yourself in a difficult patient exchange, there are a few key tactics you can implement to defuse the situation as much as possible. A simple way to remember what to do is to think like a pirate; use the acronym AARRR! 

The AARRR Approach

The “AARRR” acronym simply stands for the steps you can take to calm an upset patient: Acknowledge, Apologize, Request, Resolve, and Respect. Keep reading to learn how you can implement each step of the AARRR approach during an unhappy patient encounter.  

Step One: Acknowledge
Acknowledgement often makes us think of recognition, but as it relates to communication skills, it’s the act of validating the other person’s feelings — and it goes beyond active listening. While active listening involves repeating or rephrasing the sentence you just heard, it does not show you understood what was said. 

Meanwhile, an acknowledgement statement demonstrates understanding by calling out the emotion you detected, thereby validating the other person’s feelings (whether or not you agree with those sentiments). Acknowledgement statements are important because they can help you mitigate any anger or defensiveness that may be on the horizon.

Here is an example of an acknowledgement statement in use during a patient exchange:

  • Patient: “I’ve been waiting 30 minutes. What’s going on?”
  • You: “You have been waiting a long time! I understand why you’re frustrated. Can you give me a few moments to see what’s taking so long?”

In the scenario above, the cause of the patient’s frustration is immediately clear, but sometimes you may need to ask the patient to explain why he or she is angry or frustrated. For instance,

  • You: “I see that you are frustrated. Would you mind explaining what has happened to make you feel this way so I can fully understand?”

Step Two: Apologize

Once the patient’s feelings have been validated — and only then — should you offer an apology. When apologizing, it’s important you are sincere and know exactly what you are making amends for.

Using the same waiting patient scenario, here are a couple of ways you can apologize after you acknowledge the patient’s frustration.

  • You: “I’m very sorry that we’ve made you wait.”
  • You: “I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”

Step Three: Request

If you are like most people working in a medical practice, you are used to immediately fixing problems as they arise. While this “fix it” approach may result in a perfectly fine solution, the upset patient might become re-agitated by feeling left out of the decision-making process.

For this reason, you should engage the patient in determining the solution by requesting information. By asking questions you are identifying the needs and preferences of the patient to help formulate the best resolution.

When gaining this insight, it’s important to remain non-judgmental and refrain from asking questions in a condescending manner. Below is an example of how you can request helpful information from our waiting patient.

  • You: “We should have seen you on time. What can we do to make this situation better for you now?”

Step Four: Resolve

At this point, you should know enough to offer some favorable solutions. Present these options and pay close attention to the patient’s response — both verbal and non-verbal cues. Small gestures like a head nod, a smile, and an “mmhmm” can tell you how the patient would like to move forward. Confirm the resolution you picked up on, so all parties know the agreed upon solution.

This exchange with the waiting patient may look like this:

  • You: “I have good news! I just spoke with the technician, and she will be calling you back in less than five minutes. Are you able to continue with your appointment or would you prefer I reschedule you for a different day?”
  • Patient (nods head): “I’ll keep with my current appointment.”
  • You: “Wonderful! The technician will see you soon. Thank you, and we are sorry that we made you wait.”

Step Five: Respect

Throughout your entire encounter with an angry patient, it is vital to treat the patient with respect. This involves using good manners, practicing tolerance, remaining calm, and treating the patient with kindness. By holding yourself in check, you reduce the situation from escalating further (and the patient from getting angrier). All this helps in a resolution being reached.

EXERCISE: Lead with Empathy

Whether you need the AARRR approach or not, there is one thing you should utilize in any patient interaction: empathy. Empathy is the ability to relate to someone else’s feelings by putting yourself in that person’s shoes. Below is an exercise you can perform to help you see the world from the patient’s perspective.   

Exercise: To get a sense of what a cataract patient sees, take plano glasses or your prescription glasses and cover the lenses in either petroleum jelly or transparent tissue paper. Afterward, try a simple, everyday task patients are asked to do in the office. Did you get frustrated? Did you struggle? How did the visual impartment make you feel?

It Takes Practice

Dealing with an upset customer is inevitable in the service industry, especially in today’s world. When you are faced with such an encounter, be empathic and use the AARRR approach. It will take practice to perfect. One suggestion is to use real-life examples to carry out role playing exercises with your colleagues. When executed properly, the AARRR approach can turn an angry patient into a happier one (and perhaps even a loyal customer) while saving you some anxiety and frustration during a difficult encounter. A win for all.

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