Dealing with Difficult Patients

Every practice, now and then, has to deal with difficult patients. Unfortunately, these encounters cannot be avoided altogether. Yet, just a little preparation may keep confrontation and open hostility to a minimum.

Why are some patients so difficult to deal with?Dealing with Difficult Patients

Being confronted with a “challenging” person here and there is just part of working with the public. However, when an emotionally charged situation develops in your clinic, usually there are additional factors at play.

Sick, feeling bad and scared…

Let’s face it most of us have a “shorter fuse” when we’re sick and not feeling well. We may be scared because we don’t know what to expect and what will happen to us. And nowhere may fear and uncertainty about one’s health be more acute than in the healthcare setting… like in your clinic.

And you empathize…sickpt-sm

However, you also know that feeling sick or fearful is no excuse for bad or aggressive behavior. Nor is it ok for someone to be verbally abusive over a mistake made with their appointment, confusion over a payment, or over a problem with their medication.

Benefits of being prepared.

Disagreements will happen, you can count on it. However, you can take proactive measures. You and your staff can prepare to deal with “bad behavior”, which makes it easier when it happens.

One approach is to expect a certain degree of patient “issues “and prepare accordingly. Ultimately, both you and your patients will benefit from this.

Your patients benefit because:

  • They feel listened to and heard, not ignored.
  • It improves patient satisfaction.
  • Other patients feel less uncomfortable when inadvertently witnessing an altercation.

You and your staff benefit because:

  • Work is more gratifying.
  • Staff and patient interaction become far more effective.
  • The likeliness of getting sued by an “unhappy” patient is reduced.

Preparing for “the worst” result is a win-win situation because both parties come out ahead!

Now, let’s take a look at how you can prepare for these potentially “dicey” situations.

How to prepare…

One of the most effective strategies to avoid difficult behaviors from patients… remove or minimize the reasons for these behaviors.receptionistphonemed

1. You do this by providing superb customer service…

  • Acknowledge patients coming to the clinic, greet them.
  • Let them know that you value their time… for example, let them know you are running late and offer to reschedule.
  • Listen to what people have to say, don’t pre-judge.
  • Set clear expectations… let them know when they can expect to hear back from you.
  • Answer phones promptly and get back to people in a reasonable amount of time. Post response times in your office and on your website.

2. Provide a calming environment, for example, soft music instead of loud TV.

3. Provide clear explanations of your financial policies and follow them. If you collect co-pays at each visit (as you should) do that each and every time.

4. Explain what is being done (medically) and what to expect, i.e. after the procedure, you can expect [blank].

5. Be clear regarding your medication refill policy… and follow it consistently.

6. Establish reasonable policies and make sure staff and patients understand them. Again, consistency in following your policies sets clear expectations.


The other strategy is training yourself and your staff on how to deal with difficult people. Here are a few things to do in a challenging situation.

  • Remain calm, don’t raise your voice.
  • Let the person talk, let them finish what they have to say… don’t interrupt.
  • Acknowledge their frustration.
  • Let them know you are working on finding a resolution and when they can expect to hear from you.
  • Remain courteous and calm at all times.
  • If the situation escalates, getting ‘under your skin” it might be time to step aside to let someone else deal with this patient and situation.
  • Have procedures and protocols in place to deal with difficult patients.
  • Make sure your staff stays current with clinic procedures and protocols and they know what to do with “unruly” patients.

In closing…

If you’ve worked with people for any length of time you know how fast a situation can get out of hand and escalate. It’s no fun at all! Before you know it, emotions are flying high and you don’t know what hit you.

Fortunately, these situations are the exception rather than the rule and are no fun for your other patients, staff or yourself.

You can improve the degree of patient satisfaction by providing superb customer service and by being proactive.

  • Prepare yourself and your staff by going through a number of different “difficult patient” scenarios.
  • Have a plan of attack (no pun intended!) before anything else happens in your clinic.
  • Let your staff know how they can get help if necessary.
  • Have clear rules in place… what employees should do if someone displays unacceptable behavior.
  • And finally, let your staff know that they can count on you.

Your Turn

How do you handle these situations in your practice? What has worked/not worked? Tell us in the comments below.


Images: Shutterstock

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