Keeping politics out of the dental office

Today’s political climate is more tumultuous than ever, reaching a level of polarization that often spills into daily interactions. Individuals on all sides are emboldened to share their viewpoints, with conversations taking place in coffee shops, supermarkets and yes, even the dentist’s office.

But like the holiday dinner table, a dental office is no place for political or religious discussions.  

The Dentists Insurance Company reports an increase in calls to the Risk Management Advice Line regarding heated political debates erupting in the office among both staff and patients. These impassioned discussions can create a negative environment and cause tension among all involved.

While individuals certainly have a right to their own viewpoints, business owners also have a right to outline appropriate workplace behavior. A good starting point is developing a professional code of conduct for employees specifying what is and isn’t acceptable. Conversation about politics and religion should be off-limits, as should any topic that may cause another employee to feel uncomfortable.

TDIC reports a call from a concerned dentist who felt comments made by a team member during a political discussion were discriminatory. The dentist requested advice on how to address the concern without further alienating either employee or inflaming the situation.

TDIC recommended the following language:

“Teammates get upset when discussions on the job delve into political and religious topics because everyone, while entitled to their opinion, can have very strong and different points of view. That is why our office has established a policy regarding professional conduct in our practice. I am asking all of you to curtail any further discussion of politics or religious beliefs while at work to avoid making others uncomfortable or pressured to discuss topics that are not appropriate in the office.”

Dentists should review their professional conduct policies or develop them if the policies are not already included in their employee manuals. The policies should be communicated to all staff members, including associate dentists, so the policies can then be applied universally and consistently should an incident occur.

It is easy for an employee to become defensive when confronted with an accusation of unbecoming conduct. The employee may claim he or she never made the statements in question or may challenge how the statements were interpreted. Having clearly defined professional conduct policies in place takes any interpretation out of the equation and can protect you in the event an employee makes an accusation of failing to address an uncomfortable situation.

Patients, too, have attempted to engage dental office staff in controversial conversations. While practice owners have no authority over the topics their patients can discuss, they can intervene if a patient crosses the line.

TDIC recommends that dentists speak directly with the patient, pointing out that the dental office is no place for political debates. It is important to be firm, brief and specific about what has occurred. TDIC recommends the following language:

“While I can appreciate your right to express your opinion, your comments were concerning to me and they made my staff uncomfortable. It would help us if you could curtail your discussions of politics in our practice and save them for a more appropriate forum. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated.”

Should a patient respond with belligerence or anger, it is reasonable to dismiss him or her from care. As a business owner, a dentist has the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason as long as it is not deemed to be discriminatory. While dismissing a patient simply due to differing political beliefs would be considered discriminatory, dismissing a patient who becomes threatening, hostile or does not respect your office policies would not.

The decision to dismiss should only be made if the patient is not midtreatment. Otherwise, continue treatment and begin dismissal proceedings once the treatment is complete. Be sure to follow a formal dismissal protocol. Indicate the reasons for dismissal and document the patient’s initial demeanor, statements and behavior, as well as your attempts to discuss the issue with the patient.

In today’s highly politicized world, it is often impossible to escape controversial conversations. But by outlining clear and specific expectations for staff, it is possible to create a safe, welcoming atmosphere in which to practice dentistry. And while confronting those who are vocal about their opinions can be uncomfortable, it is necessary to ensure a positive experience for patients and staff alike.

TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line at 800.733.0633 is staffed with trained analysts who can answer office policy and other questions related to a dental practice.

Reprinted from the CDA Journal.

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