6 top tips on dealing with difficult patients
As a dental professional, you are likely familiar with difficult patients.
Often, they can be distressing to deal with and can even be a catalyst for dental complaints and claims against your practice.
However, there are ways to deal with difficult patients without the situation escalating. The team at JFH Law have put together six essential tips on how to manage patients effectively and some specific reasons you may have to refuse treatment.
Refusing to treat a patient
With so many regulations in place and a fear of patient complaints being escalated to the General Dental Council (GDC), you may feel as if patients hold all the power. However, there are situations when you are entitled to refuse to treat a patient.
Below are six legitimate reasons for refusing to provide treatment:
1. When a patient questions your clinical judgment.
If a patient questions your clinical judgment or expresses a lack of confidence in your abilities, we recommend you stop treatment immediately. At this point, explain to the patient that it is important they have confidence in you as their treating physician, and that to carry on treating them would be unethical.
Try not to take this personally, and certainly avoid arguing with the patient; this could result in a complaint against you. Everyone has different views and personalities, and whilst you and the patient may clash, there will no doubt be another dentist who gels with the patient.
2. When there has been an ‘act of God’.
If a dentist is hospitalised or suspended, or there is an emergency, such as a flood, in your practice, it will be impossible for you to treat the patient at that time. Keep the patient updated and make alternative arrangements where possible; otherwise, the patient may go elsewhere.
3. When a patient fails to pay a bill or continuously misses appointments.
If a patient fails to pay bills or continuously misses appointments, you should give them a warning that this conduct will not be accepted, and future similar conduct will result in them being removed from your practice. Put information on your website regarding the circumstances in which treatment may be withdrawn.
4. When there is a conflict of interest.
Whilst this is unlikely to arise that often in a dental practice, there may be circumstances where it would not be appropriate for you to treat someone – for example, where a patient is pursuing a claim against your colleague.
If the patient comes to you and you know about the claim, there could be a perceived conflict, and it would be better not to treat the patient at all. However, if you are part way through treatment, you should highlight to the patient that you are aware of a potential conflict and let the patient decide whether they wish for you to continue treatment.
5. When a patient is violent or abusive.
If a patient is violent or even threatens violence to you or any of your staff, depending on how serious this is, you may wish to call the police. In terms of treating the patient in the future, you should assess the situation and why the matter escalated.
For example, was it an honest misunderstanding that got out of control, or has the patient been violent for no reason? Do you think the patient can be managed in the future without putting your staff members at risk?
The more serious the incident, the more justification you will have for refusing treatment. Write to the patient and confirm that you will no longer be treating them, and, if you are an NHS practice, contact the NHS Commissioning Board.
6. When a patient has complained.
You should avoid the temptation to refuse treatment if a patient has previously complained about you, as it could result in further dental complaints. However, if the complaint is about your clinical treatment or is shown to be entirely unjustified or malicious, you can follow the same process as when someone questions your clinical judgment.
Patient’s freedom of choice
Patients have the right to choose which dentist provides them with treatment, just as you are entitled to choose who supplies your materials for your practice. Therefore, if a patient requests a specific dentist to provide treatment, you should seek to accommodate that request.
If the request to be treated by a specific dentist is racially motivated, you have no obligation to treat a patient in those circumstances except in an emergency. Bear in mind that the patient also must consent to treatment, and they can refuse treatment on the grounds of bigotry if they wish.
However, there is a grey area in all this. What if a female patient requests a female dentist on religious grounds? Or a Polish patient requests a Polish dentist because they cannot speak English? In these circumstances, we would recommend accommodating such requests where possible, to prevent allegations of discrimination against you.
You should create a practice policy for dealing with such requests so staff know what to do and can identify when such requests might be reasonable.
Dental practice support with JFH Law
If you need advice or assistance in dealing with a difficult patient, get in touch with our team today. We can support you with dental complaints, dental practice business support, and many other areas of running your business.
Our advice is always tailored to your unique needs, and with expertise in NHS contracts, partnership agreements, and GDC Specialist list applications, we are always on hand to provide guidance for your practice.
Please note that the information contained in this article was correct at the time of writing. There may have been updates to the law since the article was written, which may affect the information and advice given therein.