15 Ways to Deal with Difficult Patients — Etactics (2023)

15 Ways to Deal with Difficult Patients — Etactics (1)

It doesn’t matter what your position is within the healthcare space. At some point or another, you’re going to have to deal with difficult patients. Unfortunately, that’s only one of the negative aspects with medical jobs.

There are thousands of different reasons why a patient in your care is being difficult.

They may be...

  • Ridden with anxiety

  • Frustrated with the care they’re receiving

  • Angry with their diagnosis

  • Defensive over their lifestyle

  • Fearful about their family’s reaction

But finding out why they’re acting out isn’t the most important aspect of these encounters. It’s how you deal with them during this engagement that’s most important.

As a nurse, physician, or specialist, although every interaction is different from one another, it’s a career. What I mean by that is you’re doing a lot of the same things on a daily basis. While workload balance is a huge part of working within the medical space, that’s a different story.

The point I’m trying to make is that after a while your career desensitizes you. Fourth-year Stanford School of Medicine student, Natasha Abadilla, further emphasized this point in a blog post, “For medical trainees today, desensitization is almost inevitable.”

So what are the best ways to deal with difficult patients? What you do during these critical situations has a lasting impact on you and your clients.

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Table of Contents

  • Be Empathetic To Them

  • Listen - Let Them Tell Their Story

  • Body Language Speaks Volumes

  • Acknowledge The Elephant in The Room

  • Stay Calm and Keep Composure

  • Know Where Your Strengths Lie

  • Set Clear Boundaries

  • Abuse is Unacceptable

  • Stay Engaged in The Conversation

  • Stay Professional No Matter What

    (Video) 9 Tips on How to Deal with Difficult Patients

  • Set Terms Within Policies

  • When All Else Fails - Refer to Outside Help

  • Termination as a Final Option

  • Once It's Over, It's Over

  • Keep Yourself Grounded Off The Clock

  • Conclusion

Be Empathetic To Them

The best way to deal with any negative situation is through empathy. It’s the most human form of consoling.

First, if you work within a hospital or large healthcare facility, recognize your environment. You work at a place that most people don’t look forward to visiting.

While modern hospitals make a push towards a more welcoming atmosphere through interior design, yours may not be at that point quite yet.

Second, the patient might be acting out because of their newly learned long road to recovery. Breaking bad news is by no means an easy task but having to reconcile with it on a personal level is difficult too.

Depending on the severity of their diagnosis, they may go through a form of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

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In situations when you’re forced to deal with difficult patients, the best thing you can do is to show that you care about them.

Listen - Let Them Tell Their Story

Outside of showing empathy, listening is the next most important way to deal with difficult patients. You can’t do one without the other. But it’s also because it allows your client to let off steam.

Disclosing stress is a coping method, that’s a proven fact. It also happens to be a two-way street. In order for it to happen there needs to be someone venting and another person listening.

If the patient needs to get something off their chest, let them and be attentive. It helps establish a bond with that patient while making caring for them easier. In fact, patients are 13% more willing to collaborate with their care plan if they’re recognized.

Body Language Speaks Volumes

Of course, while they’re yelling, venting or frustrated there’s more to it than listening. Your body language will tell the true story of your emotions and how you’re feeling over your verbal reassurances.

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One of the most common myths we hear about body language is that it’s 93% of communication. This comes from a study conducted by Dr. Albert Mehabrian and it’s often misquoted. Communicating non-verbally doesn’t deliver 93% of your entire message. Instead, it reveals underlying emotions, motives and feelings in an instant.

The best way to stay aware of your body language is by keeping a cool head. Pay attention to what you’re doing with your facial expressions.

As your patient vents or tells you their frustrations, maintain eye contact with them. What’s important here is that you don’t stare them down. That could come off as threatening and escalate the situation.

(Video) Five Tried-and-True Ways to Deal with Patient Compliants

A good rule of thumb to control your body language is by recognizing the signs of a difficult client situation. This comes with experience but once you know them you can get in the right mindset and mediate the situation.

Acknowledge The Elephant in The Room

You’ve been in a social situation where there’s underlying tension at some point in your life. It’s not enjoyable but this same circumstances will also present themselves in healthcare.

When this happens, it’s your professional responsibility to acknowledge the tension. When doing so, ask something along the lines of “I think we’re getting off on the wrong foot.”

You can also ask the patient for their ideas by saying, “Do you have any suggestions on how we can solve this problem?”

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Once you do this, they’ll be much more willing to open up about a conflict. Which allows you to continue the visit productively.

Stay Calm and Keep Composure

You’re a professional within the healthcare space, which is incredible. This also means that when something bad happens a patient will look to you for advice. This is most likely one of the reasons why you went into the medical field in the first place.

But it also means that when something bad happens to a patient, they might lash out. If they do, it’s also your responsibility to recognize that they’re most likely not upset at you directly. Instead, they’re riddled with anxiety. Their current mental state has led them to act out.

Thus you must maintain your composure, you’re the expert that the patient goes to for answers. If they have questions, make sure to answer them to the best of your abilities.

Remaining calm will help you defuse the situation.

Know Where Your Strengths Lie

This isn’t the first time you’ve been tough social position. In the past, what was your most effective strategy to diffuse a hostile situation? Play to your strengths.

If you shine most with your sense of humor, use it to try and improve the patient’s mood.

Maybe you like a more gracious approach. Staying accommodating no matter how they’re acting may change their entire demeanor.

You may get easily discouraged by negative comments from difficult patients. If so, take some extra time for yourself to regroup so you can move on from the situation more effectively.

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Set Clear Boundaries

Patients who stay at hospitals need attention, there’s no denying that. But sometimes they’ll ask for more attention than what’s warranted. Giving in to their requests is a slippery slope. If you do so for one, you’ll soon find that you have no time for others in need.

(Video) 9 Tips On How Not To Respond To Patient Complaints

To avoid this from happening to you, set yourself time limit boundaries. It could be an increment you want within reason but test it out as you go. As you get more used to telling a demanding patient that you’ll see them again within 15 or 30 minutes you’ll find that days are less stressful.

If the patient is newly admitted, they may get frustrated or angry with you at first when you don’t give in to their request. However, over time they’ll get used to it and be able to empathize with your busy schedule.

Abuse is Unacceptable

Regardless of the conflict, any form of abuse isn’t acceptable. It’s not in your job description to be the victim of abuse.

Every provider has a different definition of what they determine as verbal abuse. As you provide care to patients your line will form.

If a patient crosses that line, you can’t get in the habit of accepting abusive behavior. Tell them firmly that their behavior is unacceptable. If they continue to act out, don’t hesitate to alert your supervisor.

If you’re ever in a situation when you feel physically threatened or uncomfortable, call security.

Stay Engaged in The Conversation

Most of the time, difficult patients just want acknowledgment. They want your attention in some form.

After you’ve listened to their frustrations, maintained appropriate body language, and established clear boundaries you’re still not done with this uncomfortable situation. At this point, the last thing you’ll want to do is escalate things further.

But to keep things cordial, you have to engage in the conversation. If you don't, the patient will think that you’re ignoring them.

Throughout the situation, use their first name. That way they know you’re listening and engaged. Also, speak in a confident tone, even if the patient is yelling. Third, articulate how you respond. Methodically choosing your words will keep you focused on what’s happening.

Psychology Today has a list of 6 safe sentence starters to use when having sensitive discussions. These phrases will help you glide through this conversation gracefully while conveying that you want to proceed in a collaborative manner.

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Stay Professional No Matter What

The doctor-to-patient relationship is both personal and intimate. The majority of patients recognize that there are boundaries to maintain in this type of relationship but that’s not always the case.

Difficult patients aren’t always the ones who lash out. Sometimes they may become clingy. What started out as a thankful client who never shied away from complimenting your abilities might turn into a nightmare.

They may make demands that most wouldn’t, putting your career in the balance. Or they could become needy and ask to spend more time with you, giving you less time to unwind after stressful days.

This type of patient is particularly hard to navigate. Do so poorly and them leaving your practice is the least of your problems. They could go on to spread their negative opinions to their network of family, friends, and coworkers, diminishing your word-of-mouth marketing strategy.

But by staying professional throughout the entire medical relationship, you’ll avoid this situation from happening altogether. This doesn’t mean you can’t be personal while at work. Instead, it helps diminish relationship grey areas.

Set Terms Within Policies

As you know, almost everything within this industry requires strict policies, even for those who ditch their appointments. Certain treatments or diagnoses require a patient to sign a contract. This contact gives guidance on treatment to include medication dosage and when to take it.

To legally protect yourself and your clients, ensure that comprehensive, written policies back your contracts.

Each policy should state clearly what’s expected in a professional relationship between a patient and a provider.

When All Else Fails - Refer to Outside Help

If you’ve exhausted all of your ways to remedy the situation and the client is still dissatisfied or upset, you can suggest outside help to them. This is the last helpful resource you can use when dealing with difficult patients but it might be necessary under certain circumstances.

If you go this route, understand that this is an extremely sensitive topic. Introducing this idea into the discussion may add fuel to the fire if not approached correctly. They may feel as though you’re abandoning them or can’t help them anymore.

But it’s important to remember that you can’t be a heal-all for everyone you see. Some may need and receive a lot of benefits from speaking with a mental health professional, social worker, or chaplain.

(Video) 15+ Modern Patient Satisfaction Statistics You NEED to Know

Termination as a Final Option

If you’ve recommended outside, professional help to the patient and they’re still acting out you’re left with one final option. Termination doesn’t happen often but maybe the only choice you’re left with.

If this happens, write the client a concise termination letter. Ensure that it states they violated the physician-patient relationship.

First, identify the last visit date. Second, you’ll have to provide the patient with adequate access to prescription medication post-termination to ensure continuity of care.

Third, notify that you’re sending a copy of their chart and information to they’re a new provider.

Fourth, if you’re sending this letter through the mail, ensure you’re sending it through first-class and registered mail via the USPS due to its sensitivity.

Finally, understand that you don’t need to be overly detailed within this letter, keep it short and professional.

Once It's Over, It's Over

After dealing with a difficult patient, don’t let it ruin your day by dwelling on every little detail of what happened. Instead, take a few moments for yourself.

Most likely, you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t have time to take to myself, there’s a lot of other patients that need me.”

But recouping is essential. Take a deep breath to regather your senses. If you need more than a deep breath, look towards meditation. Not only can it destress you, but it can also make you up to 120% more productive.

When you’re ready, get back out there.

Keep Yourself Grounded Off The Clock

In every industry, our careers can get stressful. Although there will always be both good and bad days, the last thing you want to do is bottle up stress.

Self-care is an essential part of keeping a cool head. It’s a great way to diminish sleep deprivation, pain, and stress.

There are thousands of activities you could do to stay grounded outside of work hours including…

  • Hiking

  • Running

  • Yoga

  • Biking

  • Mediation

Participate in whichever activity you resonate with the most. Over time you’ll notice that your ability to handle situations with difficult patients gets easier.


There’s no way to avoid the eventual interaction with difficult patients, it’s bound to happen at some point along with your medical career.

As a healthcare professional, people will come to you with all different types of ailments, mood disorders, fears, and a plethora of other complications. They’ll come from diverse backgrounds with lifestyles you may not always agree with.

But outside of caring for them individually, all that is noise. Objectivity, honesty, empathy, and your undivided attention is the road to giving each of your patients the best care.


What is your method for dealing with difficult patients? ›

Let Them Tell Their Story and Listen Quietly

It's best to wait until they've calmed down so you can take a deep breath and collect your thoughts before responding. Use the patient's name, speak softly and maintain eye contact. This conveys openness and honesty. Don't interrupt and mirror their words.

What will be your response to a difficult patient? ›

Listening is the best thing you can do

If a patient or family member becomes difficult the best thing you can do is to actively listen to their concerns. It is important to give them the opportunity to have their say and for you to empathise with them and acknowledge that they have been heard.

How do you communicate with difficult patients? ›

10 Ways to Stay Calm and Clearly Communicate With Difficult Patients
  1. Listen intently. ...
  2. Show them you're listening. ...
  3. Stay calm. ...
  4. Validate the patient's emotions. ...
  5. Ask the patient questions. ...
  6. Apologize only when you've come up short. ...
  7. Be politely powerful with patients in error. ...
  8. Deliver a solution.
19 Nov 2021

What are 4 ways to deal with an angry patient? ›

  1. Stop, focus, and use your best listening skills. Stop whatever you are in the middle of doing. ...
  2. Remain calm and commit to keeping your cool. ...
  3. Sympathize and acknowledge the anger. ...
  4. Apologize. ...
  5. Look for a solution.

How do you handle a patient who is angry stubborn or fearful? ›

Keep your cool and don't be manipulated by the patient's anger. Never get angry yourself or try to set limits by saying, "Calm down" or "Stop yelling." As the fireworks explode, maintain eye contact with the patient and just listen. Try to understand the event that triggered the angry outburst.

How should a nurse handle a difficult patient? ›

10 expert tips for dealing with difficult patients
  1. Don't take it personally. "Just knowing that the nastiness is not about you is a good start." ...
  2. Look for the underlying cause. ...
  3. Learn to prioritize. ...
  4. Show that you care. ...
  5. Know your strengths & weaknesses. ...
  6. Pay attention. ...
  7. Stay calm. ...
  8. Connect with the patient.
10 Aug 2015

How will you deal with difficult patients and or their families? ›

Here are a few important ideas and skills to use when presented with a difficult situation with a patient or family.
  • Listen actively. "Active listening" means that when the other person is talking, you stop and listen. ...
  • Give them some control. ...
  • Ask questions. ...
  • Involve the patient and family. ...
  • Stay professional.
3 Apr 2014

How do you motivate a difficult patient? ›

7 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Patients
  1. Focus on engagement from the beginning. ...
  2. Make it a collaboration. ...
  3. Collect feedback—and act on it. ...
  4. Make the homework more palatable. ...
  5. Remain empathetic. ...
  6. Avoid confrontation. ...
  7. Know when enough is enough.
13 Feb 2018

How would you handle an unhappy or uncomfortable patient? ›


Unlike sympathy, which is an understanding of someone else's suffering, empathy involves experiencing someone else's emotions. Take the time to hear out your patient's upsets and concerns. Acknowledge their experience and how it is affecting them. Ask your patient if they would like your help.

How do you set boundaries with difficult patients? ›

Set boundaries

Instruct the patient to come to the office only for scheduled follow-up visits and to call only during office hours or in an emergency. Be upfront about the time allowed for each appointment and ask the patient to help focus the discussion according to his or her main concerns.

How do you comfort an angry patient? ›

Let's look at the “Steps for Defusing Angry Patients”:
  1. Do not take it personally. ...
  2. Be proactive. ...
  3. Calm yourself before you respond. ...
  4. Listen for the real message. ...
  5. Reassure and respect. ...
  6. Restate their concerns. ...
  7. Respond to their problem. ...
  8. Restart.
1 May 2010

How do you establish rapport with a difficult patient? ›

3 Ways to Build Rapport with Patients
  1. Communicate Often and Well. Effective communication is the foundation on which you can establish trust with your patients. ...
  2. Express Empathy. You need to be able to empathize with your patient without being emotionally overwhelmed yourself. ...
  3. Project Calmness.
18 Jul 2017

What are 3 ways to manage anger? ›

The three main approaches are expressing, suppressing, and calming. Expressing your angry feelings in an assertive—not aggressive—manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this, you have to learn how to make clear what your needs are, and how to get them met, without hurting others.

How do you show empathy to an angry patient? ›

How to respond to upset or angry patients
  1. Notice they're upset: “You look really upset."
  2. Listen to their story: “Tell me all about it.”
  3. Show empathy: "I am so sorry that is happening to you."
  4. Get their input for a solution: "How would you like me to help?"
  5. Offer next steps: "Here's what I am willing to do."
7 Aug 2022

How do you calm an angry or upset patient and family? ›

Regardless of the situation, keep these tips in mind when dealing with a difficult family member in healthcare:
  1. If they start to shout at you, don't shout back. ...
  2. Don't get defensive, and don't take it personally. ...
  3. Let them talk it out. ...
  4. Be empathetic. ...
  5. Ask follow-up questions and ask about specifics.
7 Jan 2009

How do you handle a manipulative patient? ›

The keys to managing encounters with manipulative patients are to be aware of your own emotions, attempt to understand the patient's expectations (which may actually be reasonable, even if his or her actions are not) and realize that sometimes you have to say “no.”

How do you deal with different types of patients? ›

How to act:
  1. Apologise for your patient feeling upset, even if you think you've done nothing wrong. ...
  2. Remain polite and try not to lose your own temper.
  3. Don't ignore the anger but try to be clear about its source. ...
  4. Don't take it personally, they're not angry with you, they're angry with their situation.
31 Aug 2011

How do you handle frustrated and angry patients? ›

7 Tips for Handling an Angry Patient
  1. Invest some time. Sometimes a patient's anger is really a cry for help or attention. ...
  2. Dial up the empathy. ...
  3. Keep your cool. ...
  4. Mind your body language. ...
  5. Physically protect yourself. ...
  6. Legally protect yourself. ...
  7. Try to end the conversation on a positive note.
17 Jun 2016

How do you give confidence to a patient? ›

To boost self-esteem, you have to make patients feel comfortable. One way to achieve this is by developing a natural conversation beyond discussions of their condition and treatment. Ask them questions about their family, pets, career and hobbies to engage them, or offer a genuine compliment.

What are the five 5 ways in which we can consistently improve patient care? ›

Here are five steps primary care providers can take right now to improve quality healthcare for their patients:
  • Collect Data and Analyze Patient Outcomes. ...
  • Set Goals and Commit to Ongoing Evaluation. ...
  • Improve Access to Care. ...
  • Focus on Patient Engagement. ...
  • Connect and Collaborate With Other Organizations.
9 Sept 2019

How do you satisfy patient needs? ›

6 Best Ways to Ensure Patient Satisfaction at your Hospitals & Clinics
  1. Ways to Ensure Patient Satisfaction in your Hospital or Clinic. ...
  2. Make Processes Simple. ...
  3. Educate the Staff. ...
  4. Improve services and ensure best practices. ...
  5. Collect Patient Feedback. ...
  6. Take required actions based on feedback. ...
  7. Follow up with the patients.
4 Dec 2019

How do you keep a patient satisfied? ›

How Can Patient Satisfaction Be Improved?
  1. • Develop Rapport. Fear often gets in the way of a patient's ability to retain key clinical information, including self-care instructions. ...
  2. • Make it Personal. ...
  3. • Educate the Patient. ...
  4. • Ensure Cleanliness. ...
  5. • Upgrade Outdated Systems. ...
  6. • Be Punctual. ...
  7. • Set Expectations. ...
  8. • Listen.
28 Jul 2020

How do you calm down a patient? ›

How to calm a patient down during the visit
  1. Engage earnestly. Start the appointment by asking about and sincerely listening to their concerns. ...
  2. Preview the appointment. ...
  3. Keep it simple. ...
  4. Address concerns head on. ...
  5. Lighten the mood. ...
  6. Stay calm. ...
  7. Express empathy. ...
  8. Write out the treatment plan.
17 Mar 2020

How do you respond to a patient who is verbally aggressive? ›

Responding to Abusive Patient Behavior
  1. Respect Personal Space. ...
  2. Be Aware of Your Own Body Position. ...
  3. Be Empathic to Others' Feelings. ...
  4. Keep Nonverbal Cues Nonthreatening. ...
  5. Ignore Challenging Questions. ...
  6. Set & Enforce Reasonable Limits. ...
  7. Allow Verbal Venting When Possible. ...
  8. Identify the Real Reason for the Behavior.
14 Mar 2020

How do you politely interrupt a patient? ›

  1. Excuse yourself. Acknowledge you are making an interruption.
  2. Empathize. Let the patient know you've heard his or her complaints. This demonstrates respect and understanding.
  3. Explain. Let the patient know your reason for interrupting.
18 May 2017

How does a CNA deal with difficult patients? ›

We've gathered the best strategies for dealing with difficult and combative patients.
  1. Tip 1: Be Aware. ...
  2. Tip 2: Be Honest, Without Excuses. ...
  3. Tip 3: Check Your Body Language. ...
  4. Tip 4: Be Kind. ...
  5. Tip 5: Put Yourself in Their Shoes. ...
  6. Tip 6: Report Changes or Escalations. ...
  7. Tip 7: Redirect the Behavior.
10 Aug 2022

How do you deal with difficult patients NHS? ›

stay calm. treat the situation with humour, rather than getting angry. distract their attention, rather than getting confrontational. if other people are present, explain to them that the behaviour is because of an illness and is not personal.

How would you deal with a difficult patient's family? ›

Be honest and set realistic expectations

As soon as you're done getting report and know you have a higher-needs family member, plan to check in with this room first. Be real with them about when they can expect to see you, and how many patients you have. Set expectations but keep them broad.

How would you handle a difficult patient in a nursing home? ›

Table of Contents
  1. Strategies for Managing Difficult Patients in Nursing Homes.
  2. Watch Out for Problems. Take Stock of the Issue. Avoid Escalating the Situation. Listen to Their Side. Keep Track of Body Language. Know When to Ask for Help. About Connected Risk Solutions. About Connected Risk Solutions.
16 Sept 2021

How do you address an aggressive patient? ›

The Art of De-escalation in Managing Aggressive Patients and Emotional Reactivity
  1. Maintain a Calm Demeanor. ...
  2. Practice Active Listening. ...
  3. Provide Patients an Opportunity to Vent. ...
  4. Display a Non-Defensive Posture.
  5. Impart Empathy and Compassion.
9 Sept 2019

What is an example of a difficult patient? ›

Angry, defensive, frightened or resistant patients.

For example, a patient who is in pain and has been waiting for an hour because you have been tending to a hospital emergency might be quite angry when you finally get to the room. He may say, “My time is as valuable as yours.


1. How to Increase Patient Volume
2. 3 Tips to Improve Patient Communication
3. 5 Easy Ways to Show Patient Appreciation
4. Three BIGGEST Reasons to Educate Hospital Patients
5. 4 Things to Keep in Mind When Creating Patient Education Materials
6. Common Senses Tips For Communicating with Pediatric Patients
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