Knowing how to deal with difficult patients is a must-have skill for all healthcare professionals. Dealing with rude patients is a fact of life – no, a rite of passage – in the healthcare industry.
What do you do if your patient refuses to take prescribed medication? Maybe they can’t afford the medication. Maybe they don’t understand how leaving their condition untreated can impact their health. Getting to the heart of their behavior can help you find a solution.
It can be easy to get offended when patients (or their loved ones) act irritably when you’re just trying to help them. Taking a step back to look at the situation from a different perspective can lead to a resolution that works for everyone.
In this article, you can learn how to cope with difficult patients by following these six tips:
- Try not to get defensive
- Be mindful of your body language
- Acknowledge patients’ feelings
- Open the lines of communication
- Set healthy boundaries
- Offer to find additional help
Tip #1: Try not to get defensive
It can be hard not to take it personally when a patient complains about something you’re doing. Toss in having a bedpan thrown at you from across the room, and the instinct to defend your honor can kick in.
The best strategy is not to become defensive. No one likes negative feedback. How you choose to respond to it can either escalate or de-escalate a situation.
One of the most effective strategies is to regulate your mood so you can stay in charge, even when your patient is spiraling out of control. Here’s how:
Use your words
In the moment, it’s easy to struggle to maintain your composure when a patient is being rude. Using filler words can help you cope until you can compose yourself.
For example, you can say things like, “Please, go on,” and “I’d like to hear more about how I could make it better.” That keeps the patient talking, giving you time to think how you’d like to respond.
Use a growth mindset
Getting defensive about your actions doesn’t help anyone. For instance, if a patient complains you didn’t respond quickly enough to their call for assistance, you might find yourself trash-talking them to other nurses. You might feel better in the moment, but it won’t solve the problem.
Instead, take this time to evaluate the patient’s criticism to see if there is any way you can use it to make yourself a better healthcare provider.
Use “I” statements
When you respond, make sure you use “I” statements to prevent the patient from feeling attacked. Erin Jones, an RN in Alabama, said this technique works well for her. “Whenever I have a patient or member of their family become upset and start yelling, I remain calm and say something like, ‘I can see that you’re upset. Can you tell me what it is you’re upset about and how I can help fix it?’”
Tip #2: Be mindful of your body language
Your lips may say one thing, but your body may be saying another. If you’re not mindful of your body language that could lead to confusion. If you’re trying to be soothing while standing with your arms crossed, your patient can interpret your attitude as stand-offish.
Learning to control your facial expressions, gestures, and posture can go a long way toward dealing with a difficult patient. You can practice using a scenario where a patient might put you on edge. Have someone watch and give you feedback.
Another tip is to maintain eye contact. Meeting someone’s gaze shows their words are important to you.
Tip #3: Acknowledge their feelings
Acknowledging a patient’s feelings can help diffuse a tricky situation. Simply saying, “I understand why you’re upset” can go a long way toward resolving their issue.
Never use negative language during this stage of de-escalation. Example words include can’t, don’t, and won’t. Take time to consider your words before speaking to make sure you don’t use these terms.
Tip #4: Open the lines of communication
Sometimes if you can just get your patient talking, they calm down and stop behaving rudely. You may discover the complaint they initially hurled at you isn’t the real reason they’re upset. The key to getting to the bottom of the situation is to open the lines of communication and encourage them to talk freely.
“An old nurse manager of mine used to always tell us there are no difficult patients, only patients who are going through a difficult time,” said Jones. “In healthcare, we are dealing with people at a time in their life when they are not at their best due to illness. Emotions tend to run high when people receive bad news and sometimes, they take it out on the nurses.”
Techniques you can use to help patients focus and remain calm include:
- Maintaining eye contact
- Speaking softly
- Using the patient’s name
Never interrupt the patient when they’re talking, as this can cause them to become more upset and abusive toward you.
Tip #5: Set healthy boundaries
There is a fine line between allowing a patient the freedom to speak and setting healthy boundaries that prevent you from being abused. Sometimes patients make unreasonable demands regardless of how much you try to accommodate them. When that happens, it’s time to call in a supervisor to set clear limits with patients.
Bringing in a supervisor shifts setting boundaries from you to them. They set clear boundaries for how the patient may interact with you, and you can go about your job in peace.
Tip #6: Offer to find additional help
No one can solve every problem. Sometimes you need backup. For particularly difficult patients, it may help soothe them if you offer additional help.
Don’t think of this as admitting you’re not capable of fixing their problem. Look at it as your life vest when you’re drowning.
A patient complaining about medication not helping their pain might need a review by their prescribing physician. Offering to request that assistance can calm an angry patient. Using this technique can shift their view of you from agitator to helper.
Understanding why patients become difficult
Patients become difficult for many reasons. For some, a medical condition like Alzheimer’s or Dementia may cause them to become verbally or physically abusive. Other times, patients just feel entitled to a certain level of care and are unwilling to accept they are not your only responsibility.
You can learn a lot about how to de-escalate difficult patient situations through continuing education courses designed around this topic. Incredible Health offers free, 100% online nursing CEUs, so check out our selection to help you deal with your next difficult patient.
Expert advice from nurses like you
- “Body language in the brain.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed March 8, 2022.
- “How to Stop Getting Defensive.” psychologytoday.com. Accessed March 8, 2022.
- “Mindful Body Language.” mindful.stanford.edu. Accessed March 8, 2022.
- “Verbal De-escalation of the Agitated Patient.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed March 8, 2022.