Rudeness In Healthcare… And What To Do About It

The NY Times article noted the negative effect that intermittent stressors can have on our bodies and how these can lead to a host of health problems. When surveyed, people stated they were overloaded and had no time to be nice.

But does being nice and treating someone with respect really require extra time? I don’t think so and I have to believe that if people were aware of how their tone and non-verbal behavior was coming across to others, they would change it. I also believe that employees reflect the culture of the organization in which they work and it is the role of an effective leader to set the tone for how customers should be treated. (See my April Newsletter for a discussion of leadership practices.)

Distasteful experiences

I’m always careful to give others the benefit of the doubt and in my experience, most healthcare situations do not involve rudeness. That said, when it happens, I find it so unpleasant as we are already feeling vulnerable and powerless from being ill ourselves or managing an illness for a loved one.

It is my fantasy, therefore, that every professional we encounter would be empathic, able to place themselves in our shoes and skilled in shepherding us through each experience, educating as they go. It can go such a long way towards easing our anxiety and to creating a positive customer experience with the organization from which we are seeking care.

Noted below are a few experiences that were not so positive and how I overcame them.

Inpatient hospitalization

A client of mine was recently hospitalized; I called to speak with the nurse on the inpatient unit. Prior to calling, I had already spoken with the receptionist and faxed a medical release form granting permission for health information to be shared with me, thus eliminating the administrative barrier related to the nurse releasing protected information.

The nurse shared some information but when I said I’d call back to coordinate the discharge (I’d already heard from the doctor that it might happen later that day), she vehemently objected and said she had too many patients to care for and that I should not call back. I was floored. When I regained my composure, I said the following:

“I fully appreciate how busy you are caring for all your patients including my client. It is my understanding that he may be leaving your facility later this afternoon. I must notify his family and the staff at the assisted living facility in which he lives so we can arrange for transportation and we can be there to receive discharge instructions. I’d really like to work together on this as I know I can be very helpful to you.”

She received my message fairly well and I proceeded to call her back a few hours later to firm up the plan. But I was left feeling disappointment about this treatment and was glad my client’s family did not have to be exposed to such unprofessionalism.

Physician office staff

I’ve been told that glass windows between a patient and a receptionist are for privacy purposes, but I don’t buy it. That’s why I am so pleased to see many new office designs eliminating these physical barriers to communication. In addition to the unwelcoming experience of glass, I’ve encountered receptionists who continue to look at their computer screen and not acknowledge me as I stand there. Again, I find the behavior to be rude.

In the past I just waited, but when I did that, I found my negative feelings about the experience quickly surfacing. Now I say something like, “It appears you are finishing something up. I’ll wait right here until you’re done.” A simple looking up, smiling, saying I’m just finishing something and I will be right with you can go such a long way at creating a positive encounter.

More suggestions

In the event you experience rudeness in a healthcare-related setting, you must be the leader and “Model the Way” for those you encounter. Although you may not think it is your responsibility, it sets the tone for what you expect and can leave you feeling more positive, thus relieving your stress and its negative effects on your health. Here are some things you can do and say:

Before making a call or approaching someone in a healthcare setting, be prepared in the following ways:

  • Approach any encounter with a smile, warmth and kindness demonstrating respect for whomever you are interacting with. I can feel this approach even during a phone call
  • Be sure to make eye contact whenever possible
  • Have the name, date-of-birth, medical record number or insurance ID number ready to go
  • Be prepared to identify who you are as the patient, family member, friend or advocate
  • Succinctly express what your need is

For example, when speaking with a physician over the phone:

  • Hi, my name is Dianne Savastano and I am a healthcare advisor to Mr. Jones. I’ve faxed a release form to your office that Mr. Jones signed granting me permission to speak with you on his behalf. I’m calling to discuss the plan of care that was outlined in his previous appointment as there have been some new developments and he needs additional guidance from you.

When speaking with a physician during an appointment:

  • I fully appreciate that you must document our encounter using the computer. I find it easier to communicate if someone is making eye contact with me. Could we please talk before you begin documenting?

When greeting a new physician:

  • Hi, my name is Dianne Savastano and I was referred to you by my primary care physician, Dr. Jacobs who felt you were the best person to assist me. I’ve spent time preparing for our appointment today and have a written agenda and some prepared questions to help guide our discussion. Could you please review it before we get started?

Other helpful tools

Recognizing that we may be anxious and fearful in a healthcare situation can help us be aware of how we may be coming across to others; acknowledging that to professionals can be helpful. For example, you might say:

  • I am frightened by the prospect of pain as I embark on this treatment plan and therefore, I’m counting on you to help me with that. I do well when I know what to expect so please continue to educate me along the way.

Position yourself as an equal member of the team by saying something like:

  • As the patient (or family member), I appreciate that I have a great team working alongside me. How can we best work with each other?

Be curious and name the behavior:

  • You appear rushed and a bit impatient. Am I reading you correctly? Is there a better way for us to communicate?

When you can’t seem to overcome rudeness

Although I’ve not had to do this often, I am always prepared to ask for help from a supervisor or manager if my needs aren’t met and/or I encounter rudeness.

If my negative experience is with a nurse on an inpatient unit, and I’m not able to overcome it directly with that person, I ask for the nursing supervisor, nursing director or the administrator on call.

If the negative encounter is with a resident physician, I ask for senior resident or the attending physician.

If the encounter is in a physician office, I ask for the practice manager.

When I get to the next level, I clearly and succinctly describe my experience saying something like:

  • Hi, my name is Dianne Savastano and I asked for you because I had a difficult and unsatisfying experience with __________. I would appreciate your help. Here’s what I need… Can you help me?


Although I hope you never experience a negative encounter with any professional in a healthcare setting, you should be prepared with how you will react should the situation arise. By always treating others with respect – even if you find yourself angry – you’ll experience a better outcome than by succumbing to a negative approach.

Remember, it is up to us to Model the Way for how we expect to be treated!