Helping Staff with Unwelcome Attention from Patients

September 12, 2011

When is a patient’s unwelcomed attention toward a staff member a little crush and when does it warrant more attention to protect one’s safety and well-being?

A few months ago, I posted about a patient who had made comments that I felt were inappropriate; things that made me feel uncomfortable, but were not threatening. It was certainly not grounds for dismissing him from the practice. After all, I’m a big girl now, and I can, if necessary put him in his place, and if things did get worse, I could have “fired” him. 

On the other hand, we are now faced with a different problem. One of my associate’s patients, let’s call him “Joe,” has been particularly friendly with one of our staff members, let’s call her “Mary.” Joe often stops by to drop off papers for his doctor, or to ask a question, or to pick up something, and every time he does, he asks for Mary. Whenever he calls, he asks for Mary. And one time, he started making the comment, “It’s too bad you work for my doctor…” at which point Mary changed the subject and asked him what prescription it was he needed. It has made her very uncomfortable. The other staff members try to protect her (thank goodness for caller ID). They’ll pick up the phone if they know it’s him. They’ll say she’s not available. Then he calls back two minutes later.

The difference between Mary’s situation and mine is that, as an employee, she does not have the authority to tell this guy to knock it off. As with all patients, he gets the courteous, polite interaction that is expected of my staff. The other difference is that I am responsible for her well-being and safety at work. If my patient made me feel uncomfortable and I kept him as a patient and things escalated, I put myself in that position, so boo-hoo for me. If on the other hand, I allow this behavior to go on, and it gets to the point that Mary feels threatened, harassed or unsafe, that’s my fault (well, it’s Joe’s fault, but I am accessory by negligence).

Now, thus far, he really hasn’t done anything or said anything that constitutes grounds for dismissal. He hasn’t been nasty or rude. Here’s my plan, but I welcome any suggestions: I will have his doctor ask him if he has had any problems with any of our staff members. I anticipate that he will say no. His doc’s reply will then be, “Then when you call, you can leave your message with any staff member. You don’t have to ask for anyone in particular.” I think that sends the message that we are aware that he is asking for Mary all the time, and hopefully, will be enough to make him think twice before he does it again.

I have also asked my staff to fully document any phone calls - the purpose of the call, who he asks for, what he says. Our EHR date and time stamps every note. So if this behavior persists, and I have to step in, I can say, “…on September 8, you called at 3:15, 3:18 and 3:25 and each time you asked for Mary.”

I hope that this is just a little crush and that this is as far as it will go. Maybe we are over-reacting, but you just never know who is going to turn into a stalker or worse. I am hoping that this gentleman realizes quickly that his attention is unwelcome.

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