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Handling patient complaints and anger

When is the best time to respond to an angry patient's complaints?

Ideally, you want to respond well before that patient takes his or her complaint to the medical board. A timely, appropriate response to an angry patient may be your best defense against claims of professional misconduct.

Here are some guidelines on how to handle a potentially explosive situation with a patient:

1. Recognize that there may be a legitimate issue

Some patients may have unreasonable expectations -- but a lot of angry patients have good reason to be upset. It's important to consider the patient's experience and recognize the fact that you -- and your staff -- may be fallible.

2. Express sympathy and concern for the patient's well-being

You lose nothing by expressing sympathy for a patient's feelings. Whether there was a simple misunderstanding that is causing frustration or a legitimate problem, saying something like, "I'm sorry you haven't had a good experience," can go a long way toward diffusing anger and opening the door to a productive communication.

3. Keep your own emotions in check

Even if a patient is being inappropriate and acting belligerent, you still need to remain professional. Responding with anger of your own will likely backfire and cause a bad situation to escalate.

4. Practice active listening skills

Make eye contact with the patient when he or she is speaking and listen. When the patient has finished talking, paraphrase the patient's issue and concerns. That way, you can make certain that you understand the problem and show the patient that you are listening.

5. Ask the patient what he or she would like to see happen

Sometimes, it's easy to see what would resolve a patient's complaint quickly and easily. Other times, the best thing that you can do is ask the patient what it would take to resolve the issue and move forward.

Try saying something like, "What would you like to see happen now?" or "How can we resolve this problem for you?" Both questions enlist the patient as the architect of the solution to the problem you have. Not only does that give the patient a voice, but it increases the likelihood that your patient will be satisfied and forgo a formal complaint.

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