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3 Tips to Handle the Angry Waiting Patient

Yesterday I had a patient walk out of my waiting room.

She was scheduled for a crown insertion at 10:15 AM and waited twenty minutes before she left.  “I can’t wait any longer, I have to be somewhere,” she told my office manager in a rushed tone.  She didn’t seem angry, but she wasn’t exactly happy either.

I imagine her expression looked something like this.

I had been working with another patient who had arrived ten minutes late and then had difficulty getting numb.  On top of all this, the veneer preparation we had planned turned into a full crown preparation after I discovered more decay than we had anticipated.  It didn’t take much more time to prepare the tooth for a crown, but it took several minutes to explain the change of plan to the patient.

This scenario is all too common.  We get behind with a patient for one reason or another and start to run into the time for our next patient.

Normally I’d have my eye on the schedule and tell my assistant to bring the next patient back.  That’s what most of us would do; start the next patient while finishing up the appointment that’s running overtime.

But I was distracted!  I was focusing on the patient in the chair and not the one in the waiting room.  I actually thought her appointment was at 10:30, not 10:15, so I thought I had more time.

At the end of the day, I had a huddle with my team to discuss how we can avoid this happening in the future.  It’s important to keep the meeting positive and not start playing the blame game.

Here are three tips we agreed upon:

(1) Don’t call it the “waiting room”

This piece of advice has been around for years.  “Waiting room” just sounds unpleasant.  It conjures images of waiting for hours in a physician’s office and having to read lame magazines.

Instead, go with something like “reception area.”  It sounds much better to the ear.  Which would you prefer?

“The doctor is still with a patient.  You can just have a seat in the waiting room.”

“The doctor is finishing up with a patient.  Feel free to hang out in our reception area.  It should only be a few minutes.”

The latter is clearly better.  Help train your staff to select their words to influence the listener.  For more on this subject, check out this post here.

(2) Put redundant systems in place

Empower your staff to make executive decisions.  During our huddle, my assistant and I agreed that she will keep her eye on the schedule and get my attention if we start to run over by about 5 minutes.  We agreed that 5 minutes after the expected start time of an appointment, the patient should at least be brought back to an operatory.

My office manager and I agreed that if my assistant or I have not brought back a patient by 10 minutes after the expected start time of an appointment, she will come back to get our attention.

Notice how specific these systems are.  We’ve identified a person and a time frame for a system to be put into effect.  This is more powerful than just saying, “Everyone should keep an eye on the clock.”

(3) If you make a mistake, make it up to the patient

Nobody is perfect and no office team can always be perfect.  Mistakes will happen, so don’t get angry and start yelling.  Often, we are the ones to blame, not our staff.

Purchase a bunch of $5 gift cards to a local store, coffee shop, whatever.  Keep them in a drawer and allow your team to give them out when they see fit.

When that patient who walked out comes back in for her crown insert visit, she’ll be getting a sincere apology and a gift card to Starbucks.  We’ll say something like this:

“We’re so sorry about what happened last time.  We pride ourselves on always running on time.  We got backed up with emergencies, but that’s no excuse.  Please accept this as a token of our appreciation for being so understanding.  We realize how important your time is.”

"That is soooooo thoughtful. Thank you!"


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