The remnants of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to affect patient stress levels. The Cleveland Clinic's observed spike in patient complaints since April 2020 mirrors a wider trend in healthcare. Front desk staff are often the first to encounter this increased stress, compounded by ongoing staff shortages and high workloads.
How should front desk staff and clinic managers handle angry patients? How can you adjust your strategy to still provide excellent care to stressed-out patients?
Why dealing with difficult patients matters
Not knowing when patients are unsatisfied means that clinic staff can miss the signs that lead up to incidents of violence in health care settings.
That’s a serious problem. Healthcare is the most dangerous place for workplace injuries. A startling 45% of all workplace violence incidents occur in the health care sector. The rate of workplace injury is over 4x higher than the national average.
It’s critical that front desk workers and office managers find ways to address stressed-out, difficult, or angry patients before they lead to even bigger problems.
Improve your clinical workflow to mitigate negative patient experiences
To help reduce the chance of angry or frustrated patients, it’s crucial to understand what your patients expect from their experience with your office.
Patients really expect:
- A personalized experience
- Economically manageable care choices
- Convenient access to care, when, where, and how it best suits them
So how can you set up your clinic to deliver a great experience that your patients will love?
Make your clinic staff more efficient by going digital
Take a look at your clinic’s workflow. Is it as efficient as it could be? For example, start with how much time your front office staff spends on the phone setting and confirming appointments. It takes each patient an average of 8 minutes to book an appointment over the phone, and your staff has to spend that 8 minutes with them. For an average front desk staff booking 75 patient appointments each week, that’s 10 hours they could save if you switch to online appointment booking.
Make it easy to book online
In clinics with online booking systems, it only takes a patient only 4.2 minutes to book an appointment online and requires no time from your front desk staff. In addition to taking less time, booking online is more convenient for 33% of your patients who want to book appointments outside of regular business hours.
The #1 reason people switch care providers is that they want to be able to book appointments from their phones. 49% of patients are willing to switch to a provider with a better digital experience.
Give your patients other ways to get in touch
Phone calls have been the traditional method of reaching clients but patients are asking for texts. This allows patients to confirm, reschedule, or cancel appointments quickly and easily without requiring any time from your front desk staff.
You can also use text messages to ask for post-visit reviews, which are an essential part of building your brand and online reputation.
Train clinic staff in communication, listening, and empathy
Communicating with patients can be challenging, especially in difficult situations. Common misunderstandings are often the cause of patient irritation or frustration.
So how can we train front desk staff to best manage these interactions? Breathe, a clinical education publication from the European Respiratory Society offers a few suggestions for dealing with challenging situations:
- Plan your interaction in advance
- Pay attention to your nonverbal communication
- Provide ways to access further information
- Keep the information simple, and don’t use advanced medical language
- Look for signs of anger or distress as you communicate
When care isn’t patient-centered, patients become frustrated. Consciously listening to patients, hearing their concerns, and understanding their needs can make a huge difference.
Have solutions planned out if a patient situation arises
Even with an efficient digital office workflow and solid practices around listening and empathy, there will still be tough patients.
When frustration arises and patients try to take out their anger on front desk staff, it’s important to have a plan in place.
First, teach your staff to notice the signs of stress in a patient, and how to de-escalate angry or anxious patients. Is the patient angry, or anxious?
- If the patient is angry, try to defuse the situation. Sometimes, that’s as simple as clear communication. If your provider is running behind, don’t lie to them by underestimating the wait.
- Next, ensure that your staff is controlling their tone of voice. Don’t escalate a situation by losing your cool. Use the patient’s name to personalize the interaction, and listen without interrupting.
- As you acknowledge the patient’s frustration, try to provide a timeline for a solution and document a resolution.
- If the patient continues to escalate, let them know that their behavior is unacceptable, and outline the consequences they might face.
If that doesn’t defuse the situation, you may need to take further steps. An approach from the Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans is a “Code Green.” This allows front desk staff to sound an alarm if they need help, and a trained team will arrive promptly to assist (potentially including security guards.)
Having a workplace safety plan, and training your staff regularly, can help you prepare for any threatening encounters that may result from angry patients. After all, the safety of your staff and the other patients present is paramount.
Nurture your staff to prevent burnout
Taking steps to prevent burnout is an essential part of limiting staff attrition. The goal is always to ensure that everyone is free from the stress of everyday healthcare.
When training your staff to be empathetic and understanding to frustrated or angry patients, you face the risk of encountering compassion fatigue. It’s especially prevalent in healthcare, and it can lead to increased errors, decreased patience, and overall negative energy in the clinic.
First, it’s important to know the signs of compassion fatigue, so that you can recognize it in yourself or in others. Feeling irritable, helpless, or a sense of being detached is common.
There is a difference between burnout and compassion fatigue, which is important to note. Burnout emerges over time as a result of stress. Compassion fatigue can come up much more quickly.
It’s vital to do everything you can to help your staff feel supported, well-rested, and appreciated.
- Promote a work/life balance by encouraging your staff to take allotted vacation time whenever possible.
- Focus on workplace wellness. This can be as simple as healthy snacks in the break room, or “fitness dollars” they can spend on gym memberships.
- Foster a culture of recognition and growth. Studies have shown that employees value feedback from their superiors that give them a clear path to promotion. Let them know that their career progression is important to you.
- Show your staff that you consider their needs a high priority. If employees always seem to come second place, they’ll become resentful and disengaged.
- Appreciate them. Even writing thank you notes or giving gift cards can express appreciation in ways that make a difference.
Protect your clinic’s online reputation
The final component of dealing with angry or irritated patients is a bit of a delicate issue: online reviews. If a patient is unhappy with their experience, they can post a negative review in a variety of places.
As expected, studies have found that reviews have a very large impact on consumer decisions.
How can clinic managers deal with this possibility? Striving to provide an experience that is patient-centered, efficient, positive, and empathetic will go a long way.
But even our best efforts won’t always be enough to keep patients happy, and negative reviews can be unavoidable.
Best practices for dealing with negative reviews online are not that different from dealing with difficult patients in person.
How to address a negative review online
- Address the review with their first name if possible
- Thank them for their feedback
- Apologize and own up to a mistake if one was made
- Don’t make excuses or blame the patient
- Communicate what changes you have made to avoid the same situation in the future
- Keep the tone positive
In addition, if you feel that the review is fraudulent (perhaps the reviewer wasn’t actually a patient in the first place) most review sites give you the option to have the review removed. For example, Google will remove reviews that violate its policies. Solv actually gives you the ability to not publish fraudulent reviews, too.
Navigating tough patients can be a challenge. The high-volume respiratory season can exacerbate tough encounters even further. Dealing with huge patient volume and staff shortages can put us all on edge. It’s important to ensure that your clinic is as efficient as possible, by using all the digital booking tools available to you. These can make a huge difference in creating a positive patient experience.
You should also ensure that the front desk staff and the other members of your clinic are regularly trained in communication and listening skills. And don’t forget to support your staff's work-life balance to ensure they don’t suffer from burnout or compassion fatigue.