9 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Patients

By Brenda Berg | Published 1/16/2018 0

Angry man talking to a doctor (2048 x 1367)

Whether you’ve recently graduated as a nurse or doctor or you’ve been in the industry for decades, there’s nothing worse than having to deal with a difficult patient. We’ve all been there, and all it makes you want to do is rip your hair out.

However, it’s your job, and you’ve got to deal with them in one way or another. But rejoice, you’re not alone, and there’s actually a number of techniques you can use to make these engagements as positive as possible for both you and the patient. The reason for patients’ behavior may lay in some common frustrations which you can easily overcome with high professionalism.

Here to get you started are some essential tips you need to know when it comes to dealing with difficult patients.


Let the patient share their story

Although you may be trying to get away from your patient as quickly as possible, by giving your patient the time of day to hear out their story and, in essence, “vent” about everything that’s happened, you can actually make things so much easier for everybody involved.

Listening is one the most important skills in medicine. According to a recent study, patients are being interrupted after 23.1 seconds when they are not finished with their story.

By letting a patient fully explain what’s happened and why they are so distressed, not only will the patient feel better as somebody knows what’s going on and why they feel the way they do, you might even be able to pinpoint exactly what the problem is, allowing you to clearly diagnose the patient’s condition, deal with it and make this a more positive experience.


Related Content: Prevent Losing Your Patients by Focusing on These 4 Areas 

Pay attention to your body language

Ninety-three percent of communication is body language and non-verbal efforts which means it’s so important to pay attention to what your body is doing when you’re talking to a difficult patient.

If you’re standing with your arms crossed, rolling your eyes, tapping your foot, twiddling your thumbs, or not making eye contact, your difficult patient is going to pick up on this, and it’s going to make things so much worse.

As with all these aspects to consider, be sure to monitor your body language to make sure that you are professional at all times. The best way is to use some of the best doctor-patient communication practices from medical experts. For example, Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist, states that looking into patients’ eyes make them feel cared for and it helps to build a deep connection to promote healing.


Ask questions

Asking questions can make a huge difference when it comes to sorting out the problems that you and the patient are currently dealing with. You, as a doctor or a nurse, have to understand patients’ perspectives as every illness has a psychological dimension. By asking questions, you can understand patients’ fears, expectations, and beliefs which can help to confront the disease.

According to one study, exploring the key triad of patients’ Ideas, Concerns, and Expectations (ICE) when gathering information led to less medication prescribing. ICE questions can help providers understand patients’ aims of medical treatment and how doctors can provide it with the most positive resolution.


Look for the difficult reason

Sometimes, despite asking questions, a patient will still seem reluctant to communicate or to co-operate. This could be for any number of reasons. Maybe the patient had a bad experience with something similar in the past and didn’t want to let it happen again.

Perhaps the patient is diffiсult with you because he or she feels embarrassed about something, doesn’t want to openly talk about it, or doesn’t feel comfortable talking about it with you. Use your training and experience to see what it could be. If you’re sure that you’ve found it, address it in a calm, professional manner while trying to help the patient feel more comfortable.


Stay calm at all times

Things will start to get worse, for both you and the patient, if you lose your cool. At the end of the day, you’re the professional at work, and it’s vital that you remain calm at all times.

Many patients who act out are doing so because they are anxious or nervous about their healthcare problems and will simply feel uneasy in the presence of a healthcare professional. It is called the “White Coat Syndrome“. There are several ways to overcome this anxiety and provide good healthcare experience for patients. The most important is remaining calm throughout interactions help to calm them down over time.


Speak professionally

When a patient starts to get really difficult, it’s easy to fall into the trap of dropping your professional manner and start getting irate and off topic. Some patients really know how to push our buttons.

However, there are phrases that you can use that are appropriate and professional, as well as a collection of medical metaphors you can use to make sure that you’re communicating how you should be and don’t risk making things worse. The main idea is to avoid negative language and create positive conversation tone.

For example, you can calm your patient by using phrases such as “Let me see if I understand you correctly” and “I can see why you might feel that way”. Those phrases will help your patients know that you understand their health issue and that you are ready to propose the best care for them. Avoid phrases like “You should have” or “You neglected to” which may make your patients feel demeaned and careless.

A recent study found that metaphors improve difficult communication with patients. Some examples of medical metaphors are “fight”, “battle”, “journey”, “a thing is in the air”, etc. Using metaphors helps to communicate effectively and tell the sad news and prognosis with supportive words.


Know yourself and your abilities

As a nurse or a doctor, it’s important that you know your own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to dealing with difficult patients. In some cases, you might have an ironic sense of humor that will work with some patients but not with others.

Be sure to know exactly when you have the right mix of personality and skills to effectively deal with a given difficult patient and when you need to back down and let someone else, who is more familiar or sympathetic with the patient, take over. Work as a team with other nurses and doctors at the hospital.


Don’t take anything personally

First, and easily the most important tip, on this list is to not take what a difficult patient says personally. If another doctor or nurse were dealing with this patient, the patient might also be difficult to them—so, it’s likely not directed at you as a person.

As a nurse or doctor, it’s important to remember that the patient is not going to be in the best mood due to the circumstances and you only need to focus on doing your job the best you can.


Never accept abuse

If it gets to a point where the patient starts to get abusive, whether physically or verbally, it’s time to step back. Absolutely nowhere in your job description does it say that you have to stand there and take abuse from a patient. Tell them that they have overstepped the boundary and that their behavior has become unacceptable, and then alert your manager.



Dealing with difficult patients is never an easy task, but problems can escalate quickly if they’re not dealt with in a professional manner. Learn these tips by heart and you can be sure that you’d be ready to deal with whoever walks through the door next.

Related Content: Physicians are At Risk When Patients Refuse to Listen

Brenda Berg

Website: http://letsgoandlearn.com/

Brenda Berg is a professional with over 15 years of experience in business management, marketing, and entrepreneurship. Consultant and tutor for college students and entrepreneurs at Big assignments. Also, Brenda is a part-time educator and Editor in Chief at Oxessays. She believes that constant learning is the only way to success. You can visit her personal blog at Letsgoandlearn.com.

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