Choosing the Right Words for Handling Health Care Patients

The surgery waiting room is a pretty tense place. People sit quietly, everyone hoping their loved one is soon out from under the knife and praying all goes well. But sometimes, the tension is too much and someone snaps.

I recently watched an elderly man, waiting for a loved one to get out of surgery, march up to the two women behind the desk and let them have it. "What’s taking so long? Why isn't there a doctor down here talking to me? What kind of outfit is this?"

They handled it well. They were polite. They listened to him, and expressed how sorry they were he was upset and then made a call to find out if there was any information to provide him. It worked. He calmed down.

Responding to Patients and Family Members

Clinics, hospitals and doctors’ offices are filled with legitimately stressed out people. Those working in the health care industry are going to be on the receiving end of some negative comments—everything from "I want a different doctor," to "Why am I filling out this form again?" They must become masters at managing people.

Because the health industry gets a certain type of complaint, videos like The Right Words at the Right Time... Customer Service Recovery for Healthcare, offer some specific advice. Having the exact words and actions prepared for a tense situation, can make all the difference.

If you're new to handling frustrated patients and family members, here are a few tips:

• Let the individuals know that you truly care about their issue. The words “I’m sorry” go a long ways to easing tension. For example, "I’m sorry, you have to do this, but it’s necessary to ensure we understand the problem."

• Make sure they know you understand their particular issue. Even if you "get it" instantly, to the folks who are dealing with health issues, this is new terrain.

• Make sure your body language matches your kind words. And don’t forget multitasking can send the wrong message as well. It’s one thing to be checking someone’s blood pressure while you answer their question, but answering a phone call while nodding "I got it" is poor communication.

• Keep it together. Don’t let their frustrations leak into your responses. Stay polite and professional.

• Don't recreate the wheel -- learning everything by trial and error. Learn from others and ask co-workers how they’ve successfully handled difficult individuals. Ask your employer if they offer any training.


Sometimes, despite all the best efforts, things can go wrong and individuals have legitimate reasons for being upset and angry. When this happens, again you have the opportunity to make things right and create satisfied customers or create resentment.

I’m a big fan of being proactive. Issues will crop up, but by understanding customer expectations we can anticipate potential issues and prepare for them.

"When we fail to understand and manage the expectations, dissatisfaction results. The key to success is being able to anticipate the customers' needs at each step and strive to ensure that processes are in place that will meet and exceed their expectations." Baird Group.

Be prepared

In the surgery waiting room, the two women at the desk were prepared and obviosuly had some customer care training. They anticipated people might get anxious when a surgery runs long and they were prepared to step in. They were polite, listened demonstrated they cared and found a solution. They successfully helped the stressed man through a difficult time.

I hope the person who was going through surgery had an equally good experience.

Diane Mettler has been a manager for nearly 20 years. She's also a freelance writer and editor--with hundreds of her articles published in a variety of magazines—and teaches writing at the University of Washington.