General Tips for Dealing with Difficult Patients

  • Be a good listener. Often, a difficult patient is just reaching out for someone to confide in, someone whom they can trust will listen to their concerns and find the best possible answers and approaches to their oral health care needs.

  • Watch the patient’s body language. “You are not going to get them to open up their mouth if they are gripping the chair,” pointed out Sandra Magee, RDH, BS, RDHAP.

  • Communicate at the patient’s level of understanding. “You can tell when someone is working on a child because they get this singsong thing going,” asserted Julie Bunn, RDH. “They talk to them like they have an IQ of 2. I don’t do that. I try very hard to never make any fast movements. With a patient who is apprehensive, I am very careful to explain what I am doing.” Remind child patients of the noises they will hear during treatments and explain what is going on in a straightforward manner, she advised.

  • Keep up with cutting-edge techniques and technologies. Mary Calka, RDH, recommends attending professional meetings, getting involved in study clubs, visiting trade shows and, of course, reading dental hygiene literature and following the research trends.

  • Communicate with your colleagues. Get involved in ADHA and state organizations because the networking opportunities are unlimited. It is an opportunity to share strategies and stories that will help you through any challenge in dental hygiene.

  • Maintain a professional image. Display those framed and mounted dental hygiene licenses, diplomas, professional awards and various certificates to reveal your accreditation. Calka does and finds that when she leaves the room and returns, the patient will comment on these accomplishments.

  • Take a page from the playbook of your local spa. Use relaxation techniques or add aromatherapy or music to your treatment room. Even cooperative patients will appreciate the gentle atmosphere and become more relaxed.

  • Don’t give up hope. If a patient has a long history of being difficult, at least they are interested enough in their health to come regularly, points out Patricia Schonberger, RDH, BS. “I would emphasize that at each point. ‘Great, you are back! You are doing great coming regularly.’ Try to pick up something good that they have done,” she encouraged.

  • Put yourself in the patient’s place, said Bunn, and try to understand where they are coming from. “I think that’s the biggest thing—if you can understand a little bit of why they are acting [the way they are],” she explained. “And keep your sense of humor. This too shall pass in another hour.” Excerpt from the article "Dealing with Difficult Patients" by Susan Elliott.