How do you handle the complaining patient?

Curiosity and the Complaint

Sally has been a patient for over 15 years. Her visits to us have been successful, productive, and delightful. We are very fond of each other.

At her last visit, with no warning, Sally laced into me, saying that I had deliberately placed a defective piece of dentistry that’s been trapping food for the last 6 months. She went on to say that I must have thought that she wasn’t going to live much longer and it didn’t matter to me that she had a problem.

Now if that doesn’t get your heart racing and activate your fight- or- flight reaction, nothing will!

I took a deep breath and coolly asked Sally to allow me to see the problem determine its cause. I discovered that Sally had fractured some porcelain off a screw retained crown over an implant which we had done for her a few years ago. Very calmly (and, of course, without reminding her that I had expressed concern about her bruxism several times in the past), I assured Sally that I can easily correct the problem. “I don’t want to go through any more drilling!”, Sally said belligerently, “and all this will be at YOUR expense!” Nonchalantly (while my insides quietly boiled) I assured her that there will neither be any drilling nor cost to her.

I realized that Sally’s confrontation was a professional make-or-break moment for us and had to be resolved. Here’s what I did:

I removed Sally’s crown, sent it to my lab for repair, and re-inserted it. Over the two appointments, I focused on the task at hand and maintained our usual connectedness. Once the crown was re-inserted, I asked Sally to come into my office for a few minutes. With body language, facial expression and vocal tone that expressed concern and curiosity, I asked Sally whether I was correct in my having heard her assertion that I intentionally placed a bad piece of dentistry in her mouth. Sally quickly responded “yes, that’s what I thought, but then I realized that, although you are a professional, you are also human. “I thanked Sally, but I went a bit further and asked, “You know, we’ve been through so much and accomplished a lot together. I’m wondering if anything else was troubling you a few weeks ago, because the comment didn’t seem to be consistent with what we really think about each other”.  Sally quickly warmed up, we had a lovely talk, and we ended with a hug.

In Conversational Intelligence, author Judith Glazer discusses neurochemical changes that occur during confrontation, which lead our minds to a defensive, fearful mode. In a dental situation, this is a recipe for disaster. The patient accuses, the dentist either gets overly defensive or needlessly appeasing, and the result is a winner and a loser, with one or both parties feeling badly about themselves and the practice.

The best antidote to this state of fear is trust. When someone shows us empathy, our brain chemistry changes, bringing connectedness, composure and constructive thought. My intentional actions and verbiage changing the nature of our discussion from You vs me into we transformed potential disaster into a strengthened relationship.


Closing thoughts:

1- If Sally had maintained an air of distrust and hostility, I was prepared to very compassionately tell her that perhaps I am no longer the right dentist for her.

2- Shortly after this episode, Sally lost a very close relative, devastating her and her family. Events leading up to this tragedy could very well have been what was causing Sally to have acted so strangely


3- Although no technique of communication will work 100% of the time, always act with kindness, empathy, and curiosity. Bond with people in your life in good and challenging times. Everyone is going through something. You have the power to heal. Use it well and use it often.

Better, Richer, Stronger - Dr. Alan G. Stern / The Life Coach for Dentists
804 West Park Ave. Ocean, NJ 07712 / (732) 493-8030

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