—Stephanie Bown, MD
Explore this issue:April 2013
A patient arrives for his appointment on time and has been waiting for several minutes to be called back when another patient enters the waiting room and is summoned before the first patient, who then becomes irate and yells at the front office workers. Is his anger justified? How do you and your staff deal with this anger?
Chances are, this scenario has played out in your practice. Often, patient anger is legitimate; whether or not it is appropriate is another matter. This article will seek to establish how to determine when patient anger is justified, what to do when a patient becomes irritated and perhaps verbally abusive, and how to prevent future angry outbursts.
When a patient becomes angry, first try to determine whether the anger is justified, said Charles Harkins, MD, FACS, professor of otolaryngology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “There are different reasons why a person may become angry: Maybe we’re rude or we’re running late,” he said. “So, the problem becomes that although the patient’s anger is justifiable, the response is inappropriate. It’s one thing to be mad that the doctor is running a half-hour late, it’s another thing to use foul language directed at the person at the front desk.”
It is important for medical professionals to understand how to defuse these situations, not only because verbal outbursts are unpleasant but also because they could escalate to physical conflict, said Stephanie Bown, MD, director of policy, communications and marketing at the Medical Protection Society in London, a nonprofit defense organization for health care professionals. “Doctors should be aware that aggressive situations can develop rapidly, particularly if a patient is drunk, mentally ill or a drug addict,” said Dr. Bown.