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How to Handle Irate Patients

By Anna Mueller, MS23 Mar 2022

Although there’s more light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, emotions may still be running high for many patients. Add a looming surgery to months of pandemic stress, and it’s understandable how tempers can flare.

If a patient or one of their family members becomes irate, how can you deescalate the situation while protecting your staff and yourself? Here are a few considerations:

Keep calm: While it’s normal to want to meet aggression with aggression, empathy will help you keep your emotions in check. Fighting fire with fire won’t work. It’s likely that the upset patient isn’t even angry with you. They may be upset about situations out of their control, including life circumstances that have little to do with the issue at hand.

Listen: Most of the time, you can diffuse the situation through attentive listening, even when the anger is directed at your organization. Angry patients (and people in general) need to be heard.

Ask open-ended questions and be sure your body language shows you’re 100% focused on them. Lean in, avoid multitasking, nod, ask questions, and even take notes, if needed, with an action item for you to follow up with the appropriate person if you are not able to help them resolve the issue.

Truly listening to a patient can also give you insight into how the patient is feeling about a diagnosis or treatment. An upset patient may be afraid about a diagnosis or treatment course, but their fear is manifesting as anger. Allow the patient to share their feelings and then share any information that may shed new light on their fears. Perhaps they’ve been exposed to inaccurate information online or they don’t fully understand the diagnosis.

For the Irate Patient Who Cannot Be Calmed

If a patient is excessively irate – screaming, threatening physical violence or damaging property – that patient must be removed from public space to reduce disruption or the possibility of injury to staff and other patients.

Keep your voice low and calm and do not touch the patient. Involve security or even law enforcement right away. This is a worst-case scenario, though, and should only be used when the patient is threatening physical harm and/or isn’t responding to the above techniques.

Training and Planning are the Keys

Patients experience a range of emotions about their treatment, condition, and experience in your facility. If safety is not an issue, simply listening and sympathizing with a patient can help them feel better and diffuse a tense situation.

Deescalation is often easier said than done, so periodically training staff – and yourself – to deal with tense situations will help you perform better when tempers flare. You should also have a plan in place to deal with such situations so everyone is comfortable and knows what to do in any scenario.

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