How to Deal with Difficult Patients as a Nurse or Medical Assistant

How to Deal with Difficult Patients as a Nurse or Medical Assistant

25 November 2019 By Kate

How to Deal with Difficult Patients as a Nurse or Medical Assistant

Working with patients can be rewarding, especially when their health improves, but it can also be challenging. One of the biggest challenges comes when you’re asked to work with difficult patients. People who are sick can be angry, defensive, and quick to lash out. Other types of patients may be silent and non-cooperative. How can you get your job done without escalating patient anger or making problem behavior worse?

You’re a caring, empathetic person or you wouldn’t have wanted to enter the healthcare field. So, let’s talk about your approach and feelings first so you’ll feel prepared to deal with different types of difficult patients.

We’ll give some patient scenario examples and ways to handle dealing with difficult patients. Patient scenarios for medical assistants can help you recognize behavior patterns and know how to respond to de-escalate tensions, improve communication, and help the patient.

How should I respond to a patient who is angry and yelling?

First, you should understand that anger is a natural response to pain and fear. Second, understand that the patient is likely not angry at you at all— they are angry because they’re ill, or at another care provider, or at their family, and even at the world.

You can help to de-escalate the patient’s anger by controlling your body language, speaking carefully and professionally, and by calling for help when necessary.

Here are some detailed tips that can help to reduce patient anger:

1) Use a non-threatening posture. 90% of our communication is non-verbal. Studies have shown that communication improves in healthcare interactions if providers follow good body language tips.

  • Sit near the patient if possible or kneel nearby.
  • Avoid pointing at the patient while you’re speaking.
  • Uncross your arms and stand with your arms at your sides if you can’t sit or kneel.

2) Control how you speak and what you say. Address the substance of what the patient says and don’t over-promise. If you can address the patient’s concerns, do so. If you have to offer a treatment or medication the patient doesn’t want, explain the process gently. If you can communicate the patient’s concerns to a physician or supervisor, let the patient know.

  • Avoid saying “you” or accusing the patient of anything.
  • Listen more than you speak.
  • Don’t say “I’m sorry.” Instead, respond to the patient’s specific concerns.

It may sound strange to avoid saying “I’m sorry.” Many people say they’re sorry when others are in pain or expressing anger. But experienced caregivers know that saying these words too frequently can escalate anger. Substitute factual phrases like “I hear you” or “Those injections are painful.” You can also say “Nobody wants to hurt” and “I want to help you.”

3) Don’t accept abuse. Although anger is a natural response that many people experience when they’re frightened and in pain, healthcare professionals don’t need to accept verbal or any other type of abuse.

  • Tell the patient calmly and professionally that you can’t offer care as long as they are verbally abusive.
  • Don’t tolerate foul language.
  • Say you’ll leave for a few moments to give them time to compose themselves.

If the patient won’t calm down, turn to fellow team members. You can ask for help from social workers, supervisors, and the chaplain or other volunteers. Don’t remain with a patient who is abusive and won’t de-escalate.

How can I work with an uncooperative patient who isn’t angry?

In a way, helping a patient who won’t talk or cooperate is much more challenging than de-escalating an angry patient or other types of difficult patients, including ones that exhibit other inappropriate behaviors like touching or flirting. Silence can indicate depression or deep-seated pain and anger. If the patient won’t speak and won’t cooperate, this is definitely a time to call on fellow team members for support. It’s much harder for patients to be uncommunicative with a group than it is with an individual.

You’ll see a lot of articles about empathy and using empathy to work better with patients. Strong empathy skills include:

  • Having a comfortable, non-threatening body posture.
  • Using a calm and soft natural speaking voice.
  • Practicing good listening skills.

Developing your own way to respond to difficult patients with a caring, professional attitude will help your job go more smoothly under the most challenging patient interactions. The more you work with patients, the more you will begin to recognize when an angry voice represents fear, or loud complaints are masking pain and suffering.

RELATED: Should I Be a Nurse? Get Help Deciding Your Career Path

Develop Your Skills With Pioneer

You can do your job of providing care as part of a strong healthcare team and exercise your best skills to reduce conflicts with difficult patients. If you can help to calm a distressed and difficult patient, you won’t just improve your own workday, you’ll improve their care and health outcomes. 

When different ways of approaching patients have been studied, healthcare professionals who used empathetic skills and best practices— like the ones we’ve recommended— had patients with better overall health outcomes. And that’s really good news!

Whether you already work in the healthcare field and are looking to earn additional certifications or if you are interested in starting your health career, Pioneer Pacific College can help you improve your skills when working with difficult patients. Learn more today.

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