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Learning from a Difficult Patient Encounter

August 16, 2022

Adam Lueken

Most physicians and providers will say that building long-lasting patient relationships and helping others with their health and appearance are both great benefits of being in healthcare and/or cosmetic care. But in addition to the hundreds of amazing patient experiences, there are bound to be a few negative experiences mixed in. These negative patient experiences can result from a variety of different things. Maybe it’s the patient’s attitude and approach. Maybe your approach or an environmental factor in your practice may play a part. Or maybe it’s a mixture of all those things? No matter the reason, difficult patient experiences can serve as great learning opportunities to prevent similar situations from happening again.

What Factors Cause Negative Experiences?

Following a not-so-great patient appointment, taking a moment to understand what led to that situation can be beneficial. Although a patient encounter is hardly ever simple, there are three general factors that impact the success of an encounter – the patient, you as the physician or provider, and the environment or situational context.

Some patients can simply be difficult, whether being unreasonably argumentative, angry, abusive or demanding. Any of these traits will typically lead to a bad encounter. Perhaps these are naturally part of a patient’s personality, but other factors may contribute to this behavior too, such as financial or other life stresses, chronic health issues or psychiatric issues. It may not be easy or possible, but learning more about why a patient is behaving a certain way can help you repair the individual relationship and set you up for a smoother encounter next time. Understanding what patient issues contributed to the difficult interaction can also help steer your approach with other similar patients in the future.

In addition to the patient’s behavior, is your approach or behavior contributing? As a physician or provider, it’s easy to become overworked, stressed and a little sleep deprived. After all, you’re still human with your own stresses and challenges you face every day. Sometimes your own stress and life pressures may make a difficult patient situation worse, even without you realizing it. While remembering not to take a negative patient interaction personally can help you cool down and refocus on other patients, you should also reflect on what potential factors you yourself brought to the situation.

Other factors in your practice can also impact the patient experience. Things like extended appointment wait times, unclear or poor communication with your team members, uncomfortable environments, etc. can all contribute to a patient’s frustration and negative attitude. Many of these factors may be out of your hands, but by evaluating your practice’s overall patient experience, you may be able to identify some areas you can improve that help keep patients more satisfied.

Recovering from a Difficult Experience

Immediately following a negative patient experience, it’s important to move on quickly, as you likely have other patients in need that same day. This is easier said than done, but here are a few things you can do. First, try to de-escalate any negativity before the appointment is over. With most communication being non-verbal, watch your body language and the tone and volume of your voice. Using a calming voice and not being afraid to step back and let the patient vent can help the situation cool itself down. If an apology is warranted, don’t be shy about offering it. Although it may be difficult, let the patient know that you understand where they are coming from. Re-establishing trust and empathy can make it easier for both of you to move on from the situation.

Next, remember not to take the encounter personally. If a patient is being verbally abusive and confrontational, keeping your cool and taking a step back can be difficult. You may want to engage back with your own retaliation. Or this abusive behavior can cause you to question yourself, your decisions or your abilities. Remember that for the patient, it is likely not personal. Outside frustration, stress or other factors may be the issue, rather than you or your team.

Often, simply removing yourself from a stressful situation and taking a breather is for the best. Step away and take a few minutes for yourself. Taking a break physically can sometimes help you step away emotionally, which can help you better evaluate what happened. After collecting yourself, you can also speak with a trusted team member or colleague. While you shouldn’t vent, recapping the details and getting someone else’s take can be another good way to evaluate what led to the situation.

With added practice responsibilities, building and maintaining patient relationships can be difficult. Want more time to spend on patient care? Our practice management experts are here to support you. Schedule a consultation today!



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