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How to Deal with an Upset Patient

By Anna Mueller, MS25 Sep 2017

upset patientAs a physician, you strive to provide the best care for your patients. So you may feel a bit unsettled — even hurt — when a patient you’ve cared for takes his or her frustrations out on you or your staff.

Everyone gets upset now and then. But add in the stress of dealing with a medical issue, and it can be easier for patients to take their frustrations out on their providers.

Thankfully, there are ways to spot a patient’s fear or anger early on and help diffuse it. Here’s how to deal with an upset patient.

Address feelings first: Theodore Roosevelt once said, People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This sentiment is especially important with patient interaction. If a patient has come to see you — whether that’s at your practice or in the hospital — chances are he or she is dealing with some tough emotions. If you’re in a non-emergency situation when you first meet with the patient, acknowledge his or her feelings and encourage him or her to talk about them with you before you begin your clinical examination.

Try using these phrases when meeting with a patient:

“You look really upset. Tell me about it.”

“I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”

“What can I do to help you?”

Look for signs: Most people — whether or not they’re aware of it — display subtle signs they’re becoming stressed or upset. Changes in body language like a tensed jaw, tense posture, clenched fists, fidgeting or any other change you notice from earlier interactions (a talkative person becoming quiet, for example) can indicate that a patient’s emotional state has changed.

There are also more obvious signs like a raised voice or the demand for excessive attention.

Be empathetic: While it’s human nature to become defensive when confronted, try your best to be empathetic to your patient. Remember, he or she is likely not angry with you, but anxious about an upcoming procedure or test, afraid of what a diagnosis could bring or just nervous about the appointment. Whatever the case, using language like, “I understand how upsetting this must be for you” and taking time to sit down when visiting with patients can help diffuse the situation. If, however, a patient’s issue is an administrative hiccup, speak with the appropriate person and let them know of the issue so it can be taken care of.

Apologize if necessary: Sometimes an apology is all a patient needs to feel better. If a patient is angry because you’re running late or his or her treatment isn’t going as planned, an apology can help.

Know when to walk away: Sometimes an angry patient is disruptive to your practice. If he or she is not compliant with your requests or the practice’s guidelines or regularly upsets other patients and your staff, it may be time to terminate your relationship.

It can be challenging to deal with upset patients. But your ability to assess and diffuse the situation can help you and the patient feel better.

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