Nobody thinks they’re being a jerk when it comes to how they treat my office staff.
For most parents who bring their children to my practice for medical care, this is an accurate self-assessment. Like reasonable people everywhere, they treat my staff with basic courtesy and deal with minor frustrations like mature, sensible adults.
And then there are the screamers.
Unfortunately for the staffers who are forced to take their calls, some people seem to think it is totally acceptable to bellow invective through the phone when they don’t get what they want. Periodically my office manager will plop down in a chair by my desk, report that she’s just gotten yelled at by an angry parent for the past half-hour, and could she maybe route their concerns to me? Those are always fun conversations.
The most frequent complaint is about appointments. Sometimes a parent doesn’t realize until a new athletic season is about to start that their child is overdue for the physical required annually for participation. Well-child appointments typically book out months in advance, especially for the more established providers with more patients, but that doesn’t stop some people from calling and demanding we find a way to squeeze them in right that minute. Apparently it is both a grievous insult and intolerable inconvenience to either wait for an available appointment like everyone else, or suffer the indignity of seeing an alternative provider.
It happens with sick visits, too. If you’ve only got a 20-minute window in your day between Trevor’s Russian math lessons and Lexie’s lacrosse for them both to be seen for their cough, you’re going to have to see whichever provider is seeing sick visits at that time. We open early and stay open late, but we cannot accommodate every single nuance in every patient’s schedule, and some parents react to that with roughly the same equanimity as if we were flinging our own waste at them.
Interestingly, when I do end up getting involved in conversations with parents who have been nasty to the staff, it is very rare for them to be similarly nasty to me. No matter how much I am braced to get a similar tongue-lashing, almost always people manage to be civil to my face.
I suspect there are a couple of reasons for this. The most obvious is that I have a position of relative authority, and serve as a gatekeeper to things patients often want. Even though it would be grossly inappropriate for me to order tests or medications based on how much I liked any given person, it probably seems imprudent to rankle me anyway.
I often wonder if there is an element of classism, as well. Angry callers who feel entitled to berate my staff view them as subordinates, and treat me more like a peer. Peers are for treating nicely, and subordinates are for yelling at. They are probably also a delight to deal with when the barista uses the wrong kind of milk in their mochaccino.
What I wonder is if such people realize that I communicate pretty closely with my staff, and even if a situation doesn’t escalate to involve me directly, I often know who’s been mean to them. While I certainly acknowledge that nobody is perfect, my employees included, I know they are hard-working people without whom I cannot do my own job well. I really don’t like to know they’re being used as verbal punching bags.
Unfortunately, with the line between patients and customers growing ever blurrier, in a lot of cases bad behavior like this simply has to be tolerated. Unlike some, we won’t kick you out of the practice for garden-variety unpleasantness. You won’t be hounded from our office with the words “difficult patient” in your chart. While frankly abusive behavior won’t be tolerated, we’re generally quite loath to “fire” patients. (We try to make our “no vaccine refusal” policy explicit before patients join the practice in the first place to avoid the awkwardness of asking such refusers to leave.) It’s bad for business to make people leave just for being churlish.
However, just because we have to put up with lousy behavior doesn’t mean it’s OK. Medical care can make people understandably tense, and even non-urgent needs like school forms can be frustrating to deal with. But that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to vent your ire to the unlucky person who picked up the phone. Even if you’re sweet as pie when I walk in the room, I know if you’ve treated my staff badly, and it’s never a good look on anyone.