I’ve learned after over 20 years in administration and management (15 of those in medical offices) that there are layered nuances to every single interaction that you have with your patient/client. You are beginning a conversation with someone without knowing how their life, let alone their day is going at that very moment, yet you have to find a way to not only help them in whatever capacity you are working with them but also do it in a way that is as positive and productive as possible. It is the role of constant first impressions. We talk so much about customer service and patient care, but I don’t believe that enough emphasis is being placed on emotional intelligence when it comes to patient/client care.
Regardless of the field of medicine, I have worked in, you can guarantee that during the check-in process alone, you are going to be dealing with someone who, on top of any other issues they happen to be dealing with at the time, are going to be anxious and stressed. How do we help each person who signs in for our practitioners? There is an inherent, advanced emotional IQ in some of the best administrators, but when dealing with multiple interactions throughout the day, even our best front office staff will have bad days.
Trust me, there have been multiple times when I’ve ‘read the room’ incorrectly, or I’ve misinterpreted someone’s nervousness for hostility and acted accordingly. A lot of my patient care hiccups could be chalked up to inexperience and immaturity, but some were just my inability to demonstrate empathy for what the patient was going through at that time. Our interactions at the front desk take mere minutes, but when it comes down to what those patients remember, either positively or negatively, it starts at that desk, or with that initial phone call.
Anxiety symptoms take many forms and it’s important, as a part of total patient/client care, to be able to know those symptoms and understand them for what they are. Those standard fight, flight or freeze responses can present as soon as you ask a patient or client to verify their name, and they can get better or worse from that moment. How do we help each person we interact within a way that is mutually beneficial? Meaning, you give the patient a positive experience when they walk in the door without draining yourself mentally and emotionally?
Like everything in life, this sort of thing is a mixture of practice, skill, and natural ability, and education. Even being a self-described “people person” who’s worked in some form of customer service since I was able to work legally, I have struggled with giving my best without sacrificing my mental wellbeing. Rough days happen, unpleasant, downright ridiculous people who refuse to work with you to make your interaction go smoothly happen. Mistakes that further ramp up a patient’s anxiety happen, what you can do to lessen it is to understand that what is going on with the patient or client you are dealing with, although it is ‘aimed’ at you, has nothing to do with you.
In the year that I’ve worked at Anxiety Resource Center, there have been many times where I think “Man if I only knew then what I know now…” when it comes to anxiety and humans. I don’t know if I could change some of the interactions that I remember vividly only because of their horror, but I could definitely change my reaction to them.
When we train employees in customer service or patient care, we tend to use that antiquated statement “The customer is always right.” which while being a great building block of customer care has been, I believe, the cause of more problems than solutions as an overall ideology. Maybe we begin with “Above all, the customer/client/patient is a human being.” and go from there. Training our employees with some basic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy could go a long way in improving their performance as even your best, most capable administrators can fall prey to a ‘challenging’ person. As we teach our new hires the ins and outs of the office and the rules of microwave use and Keurig pods, we should include training in skills that will enhance their emotional intelligence and ability to handle clients as they truly are, where they are in that moment during their very first interaction. As human beings.
Dr. Katy Fielder and Dr. Laura Huser are passionate about helping as many people as possible understand anxiety. Before I began to work for them, I had the opportunity to attend one of their workshops. I will never forget the energy shift in a room of over 70 people when they announced that anxiety is NOT the enemy, that its purpose is to keep us alive. I have carried that with me into my role in their practice and it has been the foundation for re-shaping the way I treat all of our clients. It’s also changed the way that I treat my anxiety symptoms. Their presentations and workshops are a true labor of love where each participant feels informed, encouraged and empowered by scientifically backed information given in an engaging, interactive way.
With the importance of mental health taking the forefront in so many conversations, I believe that this is the perfect time to re-examine how we train our administrators when it comes to patient/client care. We don’t need to make them feel as though they need a Ph.D. to help our practices, but we do need to help them understand the ways that anxiety symptoms can and will present themselves in a myriad of ways while they are assisting someone. This sort of information could be crucial, not only in improving your practice’s patient care from beginning to end but also in helping your administrators avoid burnout. It could even help in changing the overall culture of a practice as employees begin to see even the most difficult patients (or even co-workers) in a new light. I truly believe that as your staff begins to harness what they learn about anxiety symptoms and begin to fine-tune their emotional intelligence they will not only be able to help your patients, but they will also be better equipped to help themselves and their co-workers.