10 strategies for dealing with difficult patients

Ashleigh Knowles
Ashleigh Knowles
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Introduction

When it comes to healthcare, it’s inevitable that you’re going to encounter difficult patients, which can be pretty tough to deal with. Patients may not understand where you’re coming from, disagree with the price or processes within your service, or may just be challenging to interact with from a personal perspective. Regardless, it’s highly important that you’re aware of why patients may be acting a certain way, and how to deal with and overcome these barriers. Doing so will allow you to collaborate, produce higher clinical outcomes, as well as strengthen and build professional working relationships. Whether you work with practice management software or otherwise, having smoothened communication with patients can work to increase your Patient Average Visit (PVA) numbers, as well as overall satisfaction, which is a win-win. 

Factors that can cause a patient to lash out

Before going any further, it’s important that you understand why some patients may be more difficult to work with, and why discrepancies in communication can occur. It’s never nice dealing with uncooperative patients, however, by knowing the reasons behind their actions, you can work towards improved interactions with minimal hostility. 

Patient factors

It’s likely that you’ll face patients who may be angry, confused, grieving, resistant, or scared, and it’s vital that you’re able to identify and recognize these feelings before moving forward. Addressing their specific concerns will help you to empathize with their situation, encourage conversation, and deal with their queries and emotions swiftly. 

Language barrier

With the increasingly diverse US population numbers, it’s no surprise that many practitioners are finding they have to communicate with those who don’t have English as their first language. Growing immigrant numbers presents greater ethnic groups, who all need access to healthcare, regardless of the language communication barrier. Sometimes interpreters are needed, in addition to greater cultural sensitivity. 

Overstretched system

Make sure that you have appropriate staff numbers and adequate resources to keep up with your system requirements, especially in times of growth and expansion. Having an overstretched system can cause significant delays and backlogs that reduce the quality of services amongst patients. 

Waiting times/cancellations of appointments

Long wait times and frequent cancellations can be intensely frustrating to deal with, so it’s important you have the right resources and systems in place to prevent these from happening. To help you, check out our tips for practice waitlist management to ensure you’re able to see all patients that walk through your doors. 

Doctor/physician factors

While patient difficulties can arise from their own experiences, it’s important to recognize that physicians can also contribute to challenging interactions. It’s completely normal for physicians to feel burnt out and stressed from time to time, especially within the high-stress environment of healthcare, however, this should never translate into patient experiences. Knowing limits and getting enough sleep is absolutely key! Additionally, it’s important to keep personal beliefs and emotions to ourselves, as sometimes patients can feel that doctors carry arrogant attitudes, which is a huge no-no. 

Breaking bad news

Inevitably, you’ll need to deliver news that may be difficult for many patients to hear. These situations can be quite fragile, however, with sufficient preparation, you can definitely handle them well. Allowing time for private conversations, and making sure the news is discreet from other staff, and the patients are on the same page all work towards empathy and understanding. Discuss what the news means, what the next steps may be, as well as additional resources for support. 

Environmental factors

Having a busy environment, that is riddled with noise and chaos, can also lead to negative impressions and bad patient experiences. Having a physical environment policy for healthcare is a great way to alleviate any stresses pertaining to surroundings, and can work towards more pleasant healthcare solutions. This is also inclusive of online services, and having a visually appealing telehealth background can work wonders.

Examples of when a patient can be difficult

There are various times when a patient can be challenging to work with, and knowing these can help you be better prepared. Understanding these scenarios can help you with developing and implementing strategies for difficult patients to improve communication. 

Personal research - Oftentimes, patients will research their condition or treatment at home and reach their own conclusions, which can be very challenging. They’re likely to dismiss your medical expertise, reject your diagnosis, and have a closed mind concerning their best course of action. 

Disagreement of treatment - Sometimes, you and your patient may not be on the same page when it comes to treatment, which can cause difficulties. Your patient, for whatever reason, may not be willing to hear alternative options, and in a worst-case scenario, they may threaten legal action or take their case to the public. 

Lack of preventative measures - You could give all the advice in the world, but sometimes, patients just don’t listen or make the necessary changes within their personal life. For example, patients with severe asthma may continue to smoke despite your opposing advice, and in these cases, it can be difficult to improve conditions if the work isn’t put in. 

patient portal software

10 tips for dealing with difficult patients

To help guide you, we have collated the top 10 best tips for managing difficult patients. Keeping these in mind will allow you to prioritize patient health and do what you do best. 

Hear them out and identify the issue

No matter your personal beliefs or position, always listen to your patient to try and understand where they’re coming from. Always approach the situation with compassion and empathy, and spend time simply listening to what they have to say. You’re far more likely to address the crux of the matter!

Do not get too defensive

Every patient who walks through your door is likely to be facing their own personal challenges at home or at work, so it’s important that you maintain a level head. Don’t take anything personally, and most of all, don’t get too defensive. This can escalate situations even further, and display a level of arrogance that doesn’t do anyone any good! 

Remind the patient to treat you respectfully

Professional interactions in healthcare are a two-way street, so if a patient is acting inappropriately, you should be able to gently tell them that you deserve to be treated with respect. You too are human, and collaboration is made simpler when both parties maintain a level of respect.

Do not take it personally

As briefly touched on, it’s important that you recognize there are a multitude of factors as to why a patient could be acting the way they are, and it usually has nothing to do with you personally. Healthcare can be delicate, and sometimes very upsetting, so don’t let the negativity get to you. 

Show the patient that you care

There tends to be a stigma in healthcare that doctors aren’t empathetic to patient situations because after all, they deal with them day in and day out. Healthcare can feel like an impersonal process, however, it’s important that you let patients know that this isn’t the case. Emphasize that under your care, you’re available to hear out their concerns and that you will always do your best to meet their needs. 

Connect with the patient

It’s no secret that the patient experience is all about your interactions, and how well you understand and deal with their health concerns. Spend time getting to know your patient and show you care, in order to foster greater connections, and thus, greater treatment. 

Do not tolerate any form of abuse

Whatever the situation, and what decisions you make, you should never tolerate any form of abuse from any patient. Don’t hesitate to call security or other authorized persons to help defuse situations if needed. 

Calmly find a solution

It’s easy to become frustrated when dealing with difficult patients, however, taking this frustration out won’t do any good. Take some deep breaths, take a break if needed, or work on another task, before returning to the conversation. This will help clear your mind, and enable you to return with a level head. 

Use patient satisfaction surveys

Patient satisfaction surveys are a great way to gauge the experience of your services and how they’re received by patients. They can help identify areas of weakness for you to improve upon, such as your waiting room, and can help increase loyalty within your practice. 

Be proactive

Finally, it’s important that you be proactive in any and all situations and continue to prioritize patient health. Ensure that you’re continuously delivering high-quality healthcare solutions and that you communicate and work through all issues and challenges that arise. Ignoring things doesn’t make them go away, especially in healthcare, so it’s important that you maintain proactivity. 

Conclusion

Every healthcare business is familiar with difficult patients as, quite frankly, it’s a fact of life that cannot be avoided, and so it’s important that you know exactly how to deal with these situations. Understanding patients, and approaching from a place of compassion and empathy, regardless of your personal beliefs and values, is of utmost importance to smoothen communication. Increasing the value of your professional relationships can significantly elevate the quality of your practice, as well as boost patient experiences, so it’s important that you work through all patient challenges that come your way. Hopefully, our tips and tricks have provided you with a great place to start!

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