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Tips for Dealing with Difficult Patients

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Ever have one of those workdays that starts off perfectly? The commute is quiet, and the coffee is good. When you arrive for your shift, everything’s in order. You even have time to think about buying a new pair of scrubs.

Sadly, sometimes all it takes is one problematic patient to bring all that crashing down.

No one likes to encounter problems while on the job, even when dealing with rude patients. But emotional conflicts often happen in a healthcare setting—and understandably so—because patients are under duress. 

When caring for an upset patient, you first need to understand why they’re upset. Is there an internal factor setting them off, like a mental health crisis? Are you the one setting them off with your behavior or body language? 

To keep your calm and help you with de-escalation tactics, here’s how to deal with difficult patients.

Different types of difficult patients

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Angry patients

These types of patients are some of the most common you’ll run across.

If you’re on the lookout for examples of difficult patient scenarios, first things first: Angry patients often have defensive or resistant body language. They may be taking deep breaths, avoiding or making inappropriate eye contact, clenching their jaws or hands or being short in their remarks to others.

There are numerous reasons why patients could be angry. Maybe they’ve waited too long for care, are dealing with medical bills or received unpleasant healthcare-related news from their family members. Whatever the cause, it’s crucial that you avoid a full-blown conflict.

Instead, try to figure out what’s upsetting them, then empathize with their situation to de-escalate it. The goal should be to calm the patient down and talk through the problem in order to maintain the patient relationship.

Manipulative patients

These patients can be harder to spot and, coincidentally, harder to manage. They require more extensive training on dealing with difficult patients to keep your cool.

With patients like these, you’ll often see a skewed or disdainful view of those around them. They will be savvy at gauging your emotional state during a difficult situation. They may try to provoke a specific reaction from you to receive the treatment plan they desire.

Tactics employed by manipulative patients include guilt trips, rage or threats of violence or legal action to make you comply. If you want to know how to resolve conflict with difficult patients who are manipulative, first be aware of your own emotional state. 

Remember, it’s OK to say “no” and set boundaries if the patient threatens you or other healthcare professionals.

Grieving patients

Of course, we’d like to imagine a world where all stories end in triumph. The reality is, in the healthcare industry, this isn’t always the case. 

Sometimes, breaking bad news to a patient is part of the job, and your patient and their loved ones are understandably upset. 

Try expressing empathy for their situation. The best thing you can do is listen to a patient’s grief and comfort them through the process.

Valuable tips for dealing with difficult patients

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On top of these specific types, you’ll find general steps that you can apply to all situations where a conversation goes awry.

Examine your actions

Sometimes the person throwing everything into chaos is you. If you notice your patient is standoffish or you have repeated challenging encounters with different patients, ask yourself, “Did I do something to make them upset?”

Try to analyze your response as a medical professional, and de-escalate the situation by switching courses.

Listen to what they have to say

People who feel like their clinicians aren’t hearing their concerns often become agitated. It can also increase a person’s distress if they’re not allowed space to express their grief.

If you’re talking with increasingly agitated or challenging patients who insist you’re not listening, pay attention and take their words seriously. Adjust your behavior to try and find some common ground.

Acknowledge that things could be better

Alternatively, acknowledging that a patient hasn’t received the best care can make them feel like you’re listening and empathizing. Admitting you got off on the wrong foot can reset the conversation.

Don’t take it personally

Sometimes, a patient takes issue with you on a personal level. Other times, you’re just the person closest to them at the time of their outburst, and your proximity makes you an easy target.

When dealing with a difficult patient, remember to keep your professional cool. Emotionally remove yourself and recognize the larger context.

Figure out what is making them mad

If a patient is mad, look at the broader context of the situation, and see what is setting them off. If it’s not you, and they haven’t vocalized their concerns, search for other factors. Are they grieving a loss, or have they received terrible news?

Express that you care about them

Sometimes, empathy can be the most powerful motivator to de-escalate. Simply telling patients, “I care about you and want to make sure you’re better,” can leave them feeling less alone.

Don’t be defensive

If a patient confronts you about your actions, don’t act defensive or like you’re above fault. Denying your shortcomings can make the situation worse.

Set boundaries

Of course, just because a person is upset does not mean they can mistreat you. Sometimes, a patient’s behavior descends into harassment or abuse toward yourself and others. 

When that happens, you must set a boundary. Make it clear that this behavior is not only not allowed, but it also comes with consequences.

Keep calm

Above all, keep calm (which, we know, isn’t always as easy). However, by refocusing your attention, your behavior can control the situation.

As medical professionals, we know you’re no stranger to stress at work. Nor are you a novice to navigating tense situations with patients. Nevertheless, stress is stress. That’s why we’re so committed to helping you feel as comfortable and relaxed as possible while you’re on the job with our premium scrubs, which are designed for even the most hectic days (and nights). And we hope you’ll love them enough to gift a pair to your favorite coworker or, hey, maybe even the whole team.

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