3 Ways to Protect Your Front Office Staff From Patient Abuse

From a practice management standpoint, when we think about the term “burnout”, chances are we imagine how it applies to practitioners. But it should come as no surprise that front office staff members are confronted with significant burnout of their own. 

As healthcare trends shift towards patient-consumerism, patients have become increasingly more selective about their care experiences. Accompanying this shift is an increase in patient willingness to voice dissatisfaction, yell, place blame, and even engage in verbal or emotional abuse. 

Now more than ever, office staff need the support of practice leadership as well as effective, actionable tools that enable them to effectively deal with difficult patients. 

This is where the skill of emotional intelligence (EI) or emotional quotient (EQ) comes in. Here is what you should know about EI, how it impacts your team, and how you can start implementing an emotionally intelligent strategy at your practice. 

Article at a glance:

  • EQ: what it is and why it matters in the workplace
  • Technological support to reduce front office staff burden
  • Moral support between the administration and front office
  • Patient responsibility standards that give patients more autonomy

Why throwing money at the problem isn’t a real solution…

To buffer the impact of an abusive work environment, providers often find themselves losing overstressed office staff or trying to compensate them for the abuse they experience. According to data collected by the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), turnover rates for medical front office staff are higher than those of any other healthcare position. 

Let that sink in. 

Factor in the cost of staff turnover, combined with the cost of staffing gaps and training new team members, and the overall financial impact of poor employee support is startling.

It’s time to implement a new strategy, one that empowers your team while maintaining excellent patient care. 

Leverage the power of the emotional quotient (EQ)

Emotional Quotient, also known as emotional intelligence, is defined as the ability to understand, use, and manage emotions in a positive way to empathize with others, overcome stress, and communicate effectively.

In stressful social situations, like when furious patients are overtaking your reception desk, applying EQ actually changes the dynamic to facilitate more positive outcomes. 

EQ’s superpower lies in our ability to empathize with one another on a human level. EQ isn’t about asking your team to walk a tightrope, hoping to appease a difficult patient’s anger by making unreasonable assurances or giving special treatment to avoid conflict. EQ is knowing how to meet the patient where they are, acknowledging the conflict, and working from that level. 

Advanced EQ skills don’t often come naturally; however, to utilize EQ strategies at your practice, your front office workers must be trained to understand and hone in on the ability to calmly listen and empathize with patients.

Empathy

When a team member has been trapped on an unending phone call or berated by an upset patient who doesn’t accept any viable solutions, first instincts don’t typically include empathy. But situations, where empathy isn’t expected, is where it is most powerful.

 

 

Train your front office staff to reflexively respond to patient hostility with neutral, but supportive statements like, “I’m sorry this wasn’t a good experience for you,” “That must be very frustrating,” and “What I can do is…” Tailor the solution as appropriately as possible. In these scenarios, the patient at least knows their concerns are being heard and that their satisfaction is a priority. 

Overcoming stress

Stress levels easily rise when front office teams are dealing with difficult patients. With dozens of tasks waiting to be completed and other patients needing attention, minutes spent on fruitless, discouraging interactions can amount to massive wasted time. 

Stress management plays a big role in helping your staff successfully navigate emotional overwhelm. EQ involves checking in with one’s own emotional state and being smart about personal limitations. No one person can do it all. Let your staff know that they’re encouraged to ask for help when it’s needed, whether they’ve fallen behind on a task or just can’t seem to get through to that one particularly difficult patient.

Communicating more effectively

Clear, firm communication is vital when dealing with difficult patients. Resisting the urge to “return fire”  is a true cornerstone of EQ and could mean the difference between a resolved conflict and a permanently disgruntled patient. 

To communicate most effectively, staff should refrain from verbally overpowering a difficult patient. Helping your staff understand the difference between rudeness and assertiveness provides them with the tools they need to communicate appropriately.

When employees remain calm, regardless of the circumstance, they’re much more likely to be able to communicate from a place of strength. Staff should be taught how to lean into compassion, like letting a patient finish speaking (interrupting a patient that’s already angry rarely diffuses a volatile situation). If a patient raises their voice within earshot of other patients, allow staff to explain that disruptive behavior is not permitted at the clinic, and they can only continue the discussion in a calm manner. 

There are many ways you can help your staff communicate with a difficult patient from a position of professionalism while helping them maintain emotional and mental boundaries.

 

Implement advanced technological support for your staff

In order to give enhanced attention to patient care, your staff should be supported by comprehensive practice management software that removes some of the administrative burden. Streamlining front office workflows will free up your team’s valuable time, giving them ample time to give proper attention to all patients. 

Consider integrating software that provides simple but effective features like electronic signatures and appointment reminders. Features like this can make a world of difference in front office processes and, subsequently, overall practice profitability and success. 

Establish a system of authentic moral support 

Workplace morale begins at the leadership level and spreads down through the organization. This is why it’s so important that you set your intentions firmly and early on.

How can your staff feel motivated to practice the principles of EQ every day if they don’t think it really matters? Taking a moment to make sure every decision is in the best interest of both staff and patients is ultimately what medical group leaders are called to do. Here are a few ways you can provide authentic moral support at your practice: 

  • Provide comprehensive EQ training to your staff and help them implement those principles on a daily basis.
  • Generate motivation by explaining the benefits of EQ (personally and professionally). 
  • Encourage communication that is assertive, yet professional.
  • Support your staff when they experience pushback from difficult patients.
  • Stop mistreatment from patients in its tracks. 
  • Develop and approve office policies that permit staff to end patient interactions that become verbally abusive or disruptive. 

Champion for empowered patient responsibility

As the healthcare industry becomes more consumer-focused, patients should become more accountable for their care. Take steps that empower your patients and put patient responsibility at the forefront of patient disagreements. Many times, disagreements come from a perceived lack of care transparency and ineffective communication.

One way to dissolve care transparency and communication gaps is to invest in a fully integrated patient experience software that puts patients in the driver’s seat of their care. 

Smooth, seamless patient registration and intake functions can reduce check-in times by over 50 percent, on average, and simple, convenient payment processing delights patients while keeping your office more efficient.

Empowering patients to play a more engaged role in their care encourages them to assume partial responsibility when miscommunication happens. And considering that miscommunications do happen, this shared responsibility takes just a little bit of pressure off of your front office team, helping you retain great employees. 

Summary

Learning any new skill can take time, and dealing with difficult patients in a compassionate, effective way is a highly specialized skill. To ease your team members through the transition to providing even better patient care, fostering an environment conducive to their personal and professional growth is key. To supplement your practice development training, consider integrating practice management and patient experience software that will deliver optimal efficiency and convenience for your team, as well as enhance every patient encounter.

Staffing in the New Economy

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