How to Deal with Difficult Patients

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Nurses face their fair share of daily obstacles, and difficult patients are par for the course. Anyone who’s worked in a clinical setting has likely encountered unhappy, inconsolable or irate patients who make long shifts that much harder — but they don’t have to ruin your day. We’re sharing some general techniques that will help you de-escalate a tricky situation fast.

10 Tips for Working with Challenging Patients

  1. Stay calm.

Patients are going to base their reactions based on how you respond to them, so it’s absolutely imperative that you remain calm, cool and collected.

This can admittedly be difficult to do in the heat of the moment, but copping an attitude, getting defensive or minimizing a patient’s concerns will get you nowhere.

  1. Be empathetic.

Patients are going through a lot, so try to put yourself in their shoes. Angry outbursts are usually a result of frustration or sadness, and most patients and their families don’t intend to be difficult.

Try to keep your patient’s condition in mind, and understand that harsh words are generally just the result of misdirected emotions. It’s also likely that they’re experiencing physical discomfort, pain or side effects from their treatment.

  1. Listen for the main issues.

Active listening is one of the most effective ways to stop a bad situation right in its tracks. All too often, people in disagreements are too busy planning out their comebacks to actually hear what the other person is trying to say.

You can’t control your patient’s listening ability, but you can absolutely manage your own. Force yourself to truly listen to a patient’s complaints. You’ll likely find that they stem from something that’s easily remedied, such as misinformation, frustration or fear.

  1. Acknowledge their concerns.

Want to take a patient’s stress level from off-the-charts to manageable in an instant? Show him that you understand his concerns.

Acknowledging what the person has said may sound like parroting, but it’s very well-received and can calm someone’s apprehension in a flash. Oftentimes, just knowing that you understand the issue is enough to appease a challenging patient, but feel free to offer up reassuring words or (better yet) potential solutions.

  1. Take a timeout.

If you feel yourself getting too emotional or worry that you may say something that you’ll regret, remove yourself from the situation before things go too far.

Your supervisor should understand that this is a part of self-care, and it’s critical that you have the flexibility to gather yourself during a stressful encounter without fear of repercussions.

  1. Focus on patient care.

No matter how challenging a particular patient may be, you’re tasked with taking care of that individual’s medical needs.

Focus on the job at hand rather than any interpersonal issues that may arise. You’ll feel more confident when you approach the situation logically rather than emotionally.

  1. Remember to prioritize.

You work with so many patients on a typical day, and that means you have to know how to prioritize your workflow to meet all of your patients’ demands in their order of importance.

Don’t lose sight of your other patients just because you’re taking a disagreement personally and playing the issue over and over again in your mind.

  1. Establish clear boundaries.

Differences of opinion are bound to happen, but you absolutely do not deserve to suffer through verbal or physical abuse from a patient or a patient’s family members.

If someone crosses the line, make it clear that the behavior is unacceptable. If the behavior continues, inform your supervisor immediately so that alternative options can be discussed.

  1. Talk it out.

Speaking of supervisors, fellow nurses make great listeners on particularly stressful days. If you’ve had a terrible shift, consult with a trusted manager, colleague or veteran nurse who can relate to your struggle.

Oftentimes, they can reassure you that you didn’t do anything wrong (and they can usually offer up some helpful advice for handling future confrontations)

  1. Don’t take it to heart.

We all make mistakes from time to time, and it’s okay if something you did led to a patient’s dissatisfaction. Learn from what happened, and take those lessons with you as you move ahead in your career.

That being said, don’t assume that every patient who gets upset with you has an actual reason to do so. Normally, patients are just looking for an outlet — and nurses are an easy target.

Take a deep breath, and think of all your positive interactions with other patients. You’re appreciated by so many people, so don’t let one bad experience make you question your worth.

How do you deal with difficult patients? Share any tried-and-true methods with your fellow nurses in the comments section below!

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