Turn an Angry Pharmacy Patient Into a Calm Customer

APRIL 05, 2018
“What do you MEAN it’s not covered?!” he shouted at the pharmacy technician, who was trying to explain the situation. “The doctor ordered this medicine, I need it, and YOU need to give it to me!”

You’ve met this patient. He or she has been at your pharmacy counter many times in your career. You can almost see their blood pressure rising as they stare in disbelief at the enemy holding their medicine in a bag. While the pharmacist or technician tries to explain the situation in a logical and efficient manner, the patient just grows more angry.

There are so many things that can go wrong, and create problems in the prescription filling process that it is no surprise patients get angry. The prescription may have been out of refills. The medication may not be in stock. Sometimes prescriptions require additional prior authorizations, which cause a delay or change in the treatment plan. Sometimes the anger is due to the sheer volume of work and limited staffing in a pharmacy, which results in longer wait times for patients.

Another contributing factor seems to be that people today are just getting angrier and angrier in general. Maybe this depends somewhat on the area of the country you live. I have been practicing community pharmacy for 25 years, and it is my personal perception that people are becoming less patient and less tolerant of any inconvenience. And they appear, overall, less ashamed to make a scene about it. When I was younger it was pretty rare to see a grown-up throwing a tantrum in a store (that was something kids did…and typically were disciplined for). But today, it seems like adults are less capable of managing the unexpected, and the result is often anger, venting, and even violence.

In fact, these days most large companies have training modules to help employees learn to manage situations where violence might erupt. Pharmacies are hotspots for frustration, and therefore staff needs to know how to respond to situations where a patient is getting out of control. Given that our pharmacies are so busy, it is not only important to manage such individuals effectively, but also efficiently, so that the work does not back up any more, and result in more angry patients.

Here are the things that I have learned from dealing with angry patients over the years:

1. Don’t interrupt them. Give the patient a reasonable amount of time to express their concern. This can be hard because they are typically angry about something that we commonly experience every day. We know the drill. We have heard it all before. So the temptation is to jump in, cut them off, and get to a solution. But all things being equal, it is usually best to let them say their piece.

2. Mirror their words. This is a technique I picked up in a book many years ago, and it works very well. After the angry patient is done talking (or pauses long enough for you to speak), express their frustration back to them using the same words they used. The 'same words' is the critical part. If you change their words, they will often psychologically infer you are trying to change their perspective or re-interpret their experience in your own way. Don’t do this. Use their words back to them. This helps them understand that you listened, and can relate to their experience.

3. Remain calm and look calm. Don’t cross your arms, which is a signal of defensiveness. Beware facial expressions of disgust or disbelief. It may be appropriate to smile, but you must be careful that your smile does not communicate a patronizing attitude. You want to appear concerned, because you are concerned.

4. Offer options. This is where experience is important. In almost every frustrating situation, there are options available to the patient. For example, if you are out of a particular medication, you can offer to either order the medication or transfer the prescription to a pharmacy that has it. Give the angry patient some choices. This helps them to own the solution and typically calms them down.

5. Forgive quickly. It has been my experience that using these steps will often turn an angry patient back into a calm customer. They often are prepared to apologize for their behavior and recognize they were out of line. Cut them some slack, and tell them it is okay. Smile and shake their hand. This helps them recover some respect, and displays your professional maturity as well.

Of course, we all know that even the best attempts to calm down an angry patient don’t always work. In these cases, my experience suggests it is best to offer to escalate their concern. I ask my technicians and staff to not wait too long before offering to bring in the manager. Just escalating the concern to a higher level of management often is enough to calm down an otherwise irate individual.

I’m not suggesting these steps will always work. But I do know it is part of our nature to get defensive when an angry patient starts to yell, particularly if we aren’t at fault at all. But taking the high road, staying humble, putting yourself in their shoes, and trying to follow this advice will often lead to a happier ending for everyone. 

Jason Poquette
Jason Poquette
Jason Poquette, RPh, is a 1993 graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy. For most of his career, he has held retail pharmacy management positions. He also spent 7 years working in health plan formulary analysis and research. He currently works for Pharmacy Healthcare Solutions (PHS) as manager of an outpatient hospital pharmacy, developing programs to improve utilization of the pharmacy and transitional care for patients.
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