“Oh no, Mr. Jones is on my schedule. I really don’t want to see him, especially after last time…he made me feel uncomfortable with his comments.” How many times have you had a similar thought to yourself or even heard it between your staff? Surprisingly, this happens more often than not. Unfortunately, sexual harassment from a patient is real and is hardly ever addressed amongst the professional dental community. Sexual harassment doesn’t discriminate against gender, race, or position in the practice. It can happen to anyone, so, how do you handle a situation like this?
Before the dentist or any staff member begins treatment with a patient, it is important to set a precedent from the beginning that he or she is there to receive treatment. Although, it is important to have a friendly rapport with the patient, it is imperative to set the boundaries with the patient from the beginning. In some instances, some patient relationships naturally develop and turn into a close relationship, it is still important to draw the line when it comes to treating the patient in the office. This line can be blurred quite often but in order to maintain a level of professionalism with a patient, it is crucial to remember the precedent that has been set initially.
If a patient makes an uncomfortable comment, do not ignore it, instead respond with a courteous response such as, “thank you.” But if the comments progress and it is truly making the situation uncomfortable, then it is time to talk to the patient and give a warning that they may be dismissed from the practice. You may be thinking, “But I don’t want to make things awkward. What if they leave the practice?” These scenarios may happen, but keep in mind, it is better to have peace of mind and to come to work without anxiety that a certain patient will be making it uncomfortable for you.
A good habit to incorporate into day-to-day operations in the practice, is to not be alone with a patient, whether he or she makes you uncomfortable or not. If staffing permits, have someone else, such as an assistant, be in the operatory with you and the patient. This may not always be feasible in every situation with every patient but if it is feasible, have someone else be present in the operatory. If it is not feasible, then leave the door open or have the curtain/barrier pulled back so that someone who is walking by can hear or see into the operatory. For example, if an assistant is alone in a room with a patient that is known to make uncomfortable comments, then the dentist or another assistant should stay in the room. This also applies to the dentist, if the dentist is alone with that patient, have the assistant stay in the room as much as possible. Whatever the scenario, tailor it to fit the needs of the practice.
In addition, make sure that everyone in the practice is educated to deal with sexual harassment from a patient. Make sure that there can be an open conversation about it, regardless if it is affecting the dentist or any of member of the team. Having that open conversation about sexual harassment with a patient will help the person experiencing it feel less ashamed and more comfortable. In turn, this can help the team and the practice be prepared when the patient comes in.
If the behavior does not stop and continues from the patient, then it may be time to dismiss the patient from the practice. Although this may be a drastic step that many practices don’t normally take, it is important to ensure a safe working environment for every member of the team. Before doing this, make sure that proper documentation is being taken during every appointment with the patient. If you feel that the patient may retaliate, please consider consulting with your attorney or consultant beforehand. These individuals are tasked to walking the team through this process.
Sexual harassment happens everywhere and can happen to anyone. Being prepared and having a plan to deal with uncomfortable situations with a patient will make the process easier for the team while ensuring a safe working environment.
Sylvie Haber, Consultant
Sylvie first entered the dental field through her mother, who is a dentist. She grew up attending conferences and many dental meetings. Watching her mother’s passion and love of dentistry, Sylvie grew to love the profession as well.
After, she earned her MBA in Healthcare Administration from Loma Linda University. She completed the ADA ‘s Executive Program in Dental Management and also became a Fellow of the American Association of Dental Office Management.
Sylvie enjoys seeing dental offices thrive, become more productive and run smoothly under her guidance through management and coaching.
Sylvie can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org