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Guide to Handling Difficult Patients

Techniques for calming patients

Guide to Handling Difficult Patients

Before you can resolve an issue for a frustrated patient, you must first engage them in a way that will calm them down enough to make a rational discussion possible. Each situation is unique and should be handled as such, but there are recognized techniques that are generally effective in calming patients.

  • Let the patient vent. In most cases, patients who are difficult just want to let off some steam. They want to get their dissatisfaction or a perceived slight off their chest and they want someone to listen and acknowledge them. For this reason, your first strategy for dealing with an angry or difficult patient should be to let them vent. Moving too quickly into problem-solving and failing to give the patient a chance to express his or her feelings is likely to backfire. Some patients will blow off steam in fifteen seconds and others will take five minutes. Give them the time they need to work through their frustration.
  • Step back and say to yourself, “OK, this is where I let them get it all out.” While the patient is venting their frustration or telling their story, you can begin to develop a rapport by using phrases like, “That sounds frustrating,” “I see,” “Go on,” or “And then what happened?” When the patient is finished be sure to ask, “Is there anything else I should know about this?” This way you are certain to get all of the details about the cause of their anger or frustration.
  • Apologize and agree. After the patient has vented completely, it’s time to apologize for their inconvenience and explain why the problem occurred. If you do this before they vent they will not listen to you because they haven’t felt heard, and your explanations will only make them angrier. Don’t blame anyone, simply apologize. Use statements like, “I understand how upset this situation has made you,” or “I’m sorry this happened, but I’m glad you’re bringing it to our attention.”

It’s difficult to continue to argue or be upset with someone who is agreeing with you. But be careful not to “admit fault” or agree in a way that might put your hospital, clinic, or one of your healthcare providers at risk for a malpractice claim. For example, you would not want to say, “You are absolutely right, we should have gotten you scheduled for that x-ray much sooner than we did.” But you can agree that the issue is frustrating for the patient and empathize with their situation. For example, “I’m sorry you’ve had this scheduling problem. Let’s work to get you on the schedule now.”

Other useful techniques for calming someone who’s upset or being difficult include...


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