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Dealing with Difficult Patients: 7 Tips


So just from this super attractive title graphic, (who doesn’t love a dirty buffalo?), you can see that things in the medical field can get nasty. Much like going on a hike through the wilderness, (where you may or may not get bitten), dealing with difficult patients can be pretty hardcore. No, you won’t have a snake snacking on you, but it can mentally feel that way.

Have You Ever Been Verbally Attacked by a Patient?

Fun fact! Approximately 15% of patient encounters could be rated as difficult. “That’s just super,” you say with sarcasm.

Unfortunately, working with patients comes with a guarantee that you will be in a verbally abusive situation. Did you miss that when you were hired? (It was in the fine print).

Wait, you haven’t experienced the joy of being verbally massacred?

….You must be new here. Please take notes. It’s coming for ya, doll.

Being yelled at by a patient is mentally exhausting. It can cause extreme stress, including panic attacks, which can make you distracted, (obviously). Taking care of a patient requires skill and concentration, which can be easily affected if you are upset.

Your job just got harder.

This leaves the potential for a huge medical mistake.

Eventually, without learning how to cope with this stress, you start to dread the work day.

Girls, no one needs this. You have enough to deal with.

It’s time for a change in how you manage these folks.

Let’s work through the phenomenon of mean-ass patients, and how to handle yourself without losing it (your mind, your job, etc.)


Here are 7 Tips to Deal with the B.S.

Keep Cool

This is where your girls’ nights come in handy. Call on your poker face. Take a deep breath.


You may feel like smacking someone, and you can totally fantasize about it, (I encourage it).

But if they can’t see it bother you, they lose the satisfaction of upsetting you. Incidentally, this also works on young children.

See the connection in the maturity level?

Sometimes not responding to the verbal onslaught is enough to calm the person down. It honestly depends on the type of personality he or she is.

If you are still ready to go to nuts, try the old school count to ten exercise.

If this doesn’t work, take a break. A break from that patient for five minutes isn’t going to hurt. Go do another task, and breathe.

Chill out. There are way more important things in your life that one hateful person.

And hey, if they don’t get to you, then you win.

Maybe you should get a sticker, or a crown. Ok, fine, a bottle of wine… you get zero judgement from me.

Here is a great article from Psychology Today about handling difficult people.

Don’t Take it Personally

To my knowledge, no one sees another person and is instantly filled with hate. This isn’t high school, where you wore your hair wrong, or whatever, so it’s time for someone to be belligerent toward you.

Doesn’t happen in the world of big girl panties.

Therefore, whoever just bit your head off and spit down your neck would’ve done that to anyone. Literally anyone. Maybe not the guy who hands out money and Popsicles, (I’m looking for his sneaky ass,) but anyone else.

Remember: It’s not about you!

You’re awesome, and that patient is lucky you decided to come to work today.

“You’re welcome,” you say in your head every single time you walk through the door…

I’m serious. It’s not about you. Go breathe and make a voodoo doll. It’s going to be just fine.

Say No

Yes, you can say no. Now say that five times fast.

Did your boss tell you that the patient is allowed to get unreasonable things that are dangerous to his or her health? Doubt it.

Patient care is essential. Health and need are your key words, not want, want, want.

Are they allowed extra pain medicine? NO!

Do you have to bring them unnecessary items? NO!

As Meghan Trainor says:

Just no.

You are in charge of patient health. Keeping them safe is your top priority.

Some patients are manipulative, but that doesn’t change anything for you.

Safety first, ladies. It’s a patient’s life and your job on the line.

A helpful snippet from the Huffington Post:

Some quick tips on saying no to a difficult patient: be direct, encourage open dialogue, explain the reasoning behind your decision, and make the rest of the patient’s health care team aware of this discussion in order to reduce any chance of miscommunication.

Refuse to Accept Abuse

Verbal abuse is still abuse. It really is. Hearing someone call you names or scream at you is emotionally devastating.

Even if you have tough skin, people’s words still follow you around, like a little black cloud.

Distracting a patient by totally changing the subject can sometimes stop the onslaught.

“Is that your daughter in that picture? She’s so pretty!” This is a distraction.  It’s all about being quick on your feet and will sometimes work.

You can also compliment: “You’re dealing with all this poking and prodding pretty well. Sorry we have to keep bothering you.”

Maybe it’s not true, since they’re bellowing like a wildebeest, but at least you tried.

If these things don’t work, and the patient continues to the point that you cannot deal with the harassment: call your supervisor or security.

Some people cannot be dealt with alone, and it’s time to up the game.

  • I’m going to add that if anyone touches you in an abusive manner, you ALWAYS get a backup. Call your supervisor, another medical staff member, security… I don’t care if it’s the janitor. You need someone to be a witness to what is happening, and help you.

Um no…..

Don’t be the Trigger

There are signs to a potentially abusive patient.  Furrowed brows, clenched fists, erratic breathing, talking loudly, etc.: these are your warnings.

We all have bad days, whether it be from work or home situations.

Maybe your Roomba ran over some dog poo and made a horrible connect the dot in your living room…ah, first world problems.

Whatever it is, try to keep it off your face, and out of your voice. Patients can and will respond negatively to anything that isn’t 100% run of the mill. Try to keep this in mind when you treat someone.

Here is a short list of suggestions:

Do not be short with a patient, or act like he/she is taking up your time.

Try to be patient and understanding.

Keep a normal tone of voice when speaking.

Pay attention to what is said.

Be attentive and listen: these are huge advantages for avoiding upset with patients.

Talk to Colleagues

Talking to coworkers is great for aiding with stress related encounters. Your coworkers have either seen that specific patient, or can relate to what is happening to you. Maybe you aren’t the most seasoned professional out of your team. They can share war stories, and make you feel less alone.

The main point is that talking is a way to relieve your insecurities as a medical professional.

This has happened to others, and will continue to happen, (which sucks, but oh well).

It’s ok! Let the others in your shoes help you feel better.

What you’re feeling is normal.

I promise!!

7-tips for dealing with difficult patients


Try to Understand

There are so many things that could be the cause of a patient’s upset.

To name a few (none of which are you, BTW):

  • No insurance
  • Financially unstable
  • Mental health issues
  • Pain
  • Home life issues
  • Work concerns
  • Concerns about health

These are just a few common problems. Imagine you are in the patient’s place for a bit. Maybe you live alone and don’t have anyone to check on your dog. You could be late on rent and out of PTO days at your job. There are so many potential issues…

People have all sorts of problems and don’t want them aired out to everyone.

They may be embarrassed, ashamed of their financial situations, or the fact that they don’t have anyone close enough to rely on for help.

The point is:

  • They could be upset about LITERALLY anything.
  • The hospital is a scary place.
  • You are the only person available to bitch at.

Is it fair? No.

Is it excusable? Maybe. You don’t know all the dirty deets.

So try to keep it together. You got into this field to help people, right?

Keep fighting the good fight.

You deserve to be proud of what you do.






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