How to Handle Patients with Bad Attitudes

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Whether you’re a dental hygienist, dentist, or assistant, dealing with patients who have negative attitudes can be quite frustrating. Raising of voices, a rude comment, or a sarcastic tone of voice from a patient can make what would have otherwise been a pleasant interaction so much more tiresome to deal with.

Luckily for you, there are ways to completely turn these situations around, leaving both you and your patient feeling revitalized and on happier terms.

Handling cranky or negative patients requires a bit of understanding as to why these people are acting the way that they are; and usually, their demeanor stems from either a fear of not knowing what’s to come or a fear of being judged. But by knowing where and why this fear comes from, you can better prepare yourself and hopefully turn a bad situation into something a little more positive.

Fear of not knowing

The fear of the unknown can be quite frightening and can lead people to behave emotionally. This fear is especially true when visiting the dental office. In situations when a patient doesn’t know why something is being done, they are much more likely to be defensive and act out on sheer emotion.

For hygienists, we’re quite accustomed to what has to be done during an appointment and the purpose behind each step we take. After all, we do these things non-stop every single day (and not to mention the years of training and studying that has allowed us even to do what we’re doing). Therefore, it’s important to continually inform our patients about everything we do, step by step.

For example, when you are treating a patient, it is important to provide verbal cues. If you’re probing, tell them what to expect and why it’s important you get measurements. If the patient needs anesthetic, inform them of each step during the injection, so they know what’s happening. And ultimately, by providing the patient with information as to what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, they will most likely feel much more comfortable and relaxed.

In short, allow yourself to have a conversation with your patient. This helps establish a level of trust and respect for one another while ensuring that both you and your patient have a pleasant interaction together.

Fear of being judged

Each patient is obviously different. Some are extremely strict in terms of taking care of their oral health while others are just not as good at it. As such, some people are afraid their dental hygienist will judge them for not having the best home care. This, in turn, leads to people being defensive and easily agitated when told that they are doing something incorrectly or that they could be doing something better.

In these cases, it is again important for you to make the person feel comfortable and let them know that you are there to help them in any way possible, judgment-free. To start this off, make sure to show genuine concern for the person. Whether this means asking the patient how his or her day has been or simply complimenting them on their hairstyle, these small acts of kindness let them know that you are looking at them in a positive light.

After this, make sure to reinforce your patients’ good habits before giving them advice on how to improve. And of course, be sure to demonstrate how to do certain actions correctly, whether that means the proper way to brush one’s teeth or how to use floss correctly; in this way, the patient will feel much more comfortable and confident.

At the end of the day, it’s all about making your patients feel comfortable around you and less defensive when being advised on how to improve their health. Whether this means starting up a conversation about their kids, grandkids, or pets, or simply complimenting the patient on their shirt, showing genuine care for the person can go a long way. Understanding why patients can become agitated and what is causing their negative attitude is also very helpful in ensuring that both you and your patient leave on a positive note.

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Kara Vavrosky, RDHEP
Kara Vavrosky, RDHEP, is a co-founder and the chief content officer of Today’s RDH, an independent educational publishing company for dental hygienists, encompassing articles, a podcast, virtual continuing education events, and self-study continuing education. Today’s RDH was launched in 2018 after Kara built her social media presence with her largest following on her Facebook page, Dental Hygiene with Kara RDH, which was created in 2013. An Oregon Institute of Technology graduate, Kara has a deep passion for spreading knowledge about the importance of oral health and its association with systemic health. Kara’s passion extends to helping other hygienists understand current protocols and evidence-based research – all with the goal of lifting dental hygienists and the dental hygiene profession. Kara was recognized in 2020 as one of the Top 100 Women in Media for her entrepreneurship as a co-founder of Today’s RDH. In 2022, she was recognized by the American Dental Hygienists’ Association for their Standout Seven Award in the Entrepreneur category. Kara lives in Vancouver, Washington, just outside Portland, Oregon, with her husband, Ben, and their four Chihuahuas. When she’s not working, Kara loves riding the Oregon Dunes on her quad, spoiling her Chihuahuas, and spending time with her close-knit family.