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The Difficult Patient Dilemma

July 10, 2020

Ashley Buehnerkemper

difficult patient

For many dermatologists and other doctors, the most rewarding part of practicing is working with and helping patients. And while most patients are pleasant and grateful, you will still come across a difficult patient now and then. Perhaps they’re frustrated with their medical issue or have other issues going on in their life or at home. Or maybe they just have a negative attitude about visiting medical professionals.

No matter what the reason, encountering a difficult patient is bound to happen. This goes for dermatologists too. We previously talked about how dealing with difficult conversations with staff is part of being a great leader. Well, dealing with difficult patients in a constructive way is part of being a great doctor. A difficult patient is still a patient and in need of help, although the experience may not be as enjoyable. But there are approaches you can take to make the experience as positive as possible for you and the patient (or at least less painful).

Listen to the patient.

Although you may not want to listen to a patient go on and on in a negative way, it might help the situation for everyone. Even if they’re venting, the patient may just want to feel heard. By letting them fully explain why they’re distressed, they’ll feel better knowing you’re listening to what they have to say. On the other hand, if you continually interrupt them or dismiss what they’re saying, they’re going to get even more upset. And by listening effectively, you may be able to pinpoint what their problem is and how to properly address it more easily.

Ask questions.

Another good way to make the patient feel heard and reassured is to ask questions. This is also another good way to get to the bottom of their issue. It will help you get a better understanding of their perspective, as well as their fears, beliefs and expectations.

Don’t forget about body language.

Your words aren’t the only thing that will be perceived by your patient, possibly from both a positive and negative standpoint. Ninety-three percent of communication is made up of body language and non-verbal communication. So what your mannerisms and body are saying will mean a lot for how the patient responds. If it’s a difficult patient, bad body language will only hurt this situation more. Crossing your arms, looking away, rolling your eyes or generally looking uninterested will likely cause them to be even more upset than before. But on the other hand, maintaining eye contact, sitting up straight (if sitting) and staying engaged will make them feel more cared for and taken seriously.

Stay calm.

If a patient is being irate and disrespectful, it’s tempting to throw the same attitude back at them. But losing your cool too will only make things worse. As mentioned before, one source of the patient’s distress may be because they feel anxious and uneasy about going to a doctor. If that’s the case, remaining calm, professional and collected will help them get through that anxiety and be more at ease.

Don’t take it personally, but don’t accept abuse either.

It’s likely that if a patient is being difficult with you, then they’ll be difficult with any doctor or medical professional. You’re not the cause of it and you can’t control it, so don’t take it personally. All you can do is be the best doctor you can be and address their needs as ideally as possible. But not taking it personally doesn’t mean taking verbal (and especially physical) abuse from a patient is acceptable. If it comes to that extreme, let them know that’s unacceptable and end the appointment if necessary.

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