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Brushing Aside Politics: Keep Your Dental Office Free of Political Discussions

Impassioned political debates can create an uncomfortable environment for both staff and patients. Practice owners should develop a professional code of conduct prohibiting such discussions.

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, on social media and yes – even in the dentist’s office.

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

As they frequently do during election years, The Dentists Insurance Company has noted 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.

Utilize your employee manual to prevent a politicized workplace

While individuals certainly have a right to their own opinions, practice 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.

Dentist’s should review their professional conduct policies or develop them if not already documented in their employee manual. The policies should be communicated to all staff members, including associate dentists. 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 they never made the statements in question or may challenge how the statement 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.

Handling political discussions with patients

Patients, too, sometimes attempt to engage dental practice staff in controversial conversations. While practice owners have no authority over the topics their patients can discuss, they can (and should) intervene if a patient crosses the line.

Advice Line analysts recommend 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. Here is an example of language recommended by Advice Line analysts:

“While I appreciate your right to express your opinion, your comments were concerning to me, and they made my staff and other patients 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.”

If a patient responds to a calm assertion like the above with belligerence or anger, it is reasonable to dismiss them from care. As a business owner, a dentist has the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason if it is not deemed discriminatory. While dismissing a patient simply due to differing political beliefs would be considered discriminatory, dismissing a patient who becomes threating, hostile or does not respect your office policies would not.

The decision to dismiss should only be made if the patient is not mid-treatment. 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 attempts to discuss the issue with the patient. Before dismissing a patient, contact TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line for assistance.

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. 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.

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