How to Deal with the Angry Patient
Written by Editor   
Saturday, September 16, 2017 06:53 AM

"Mrs. Johnson is very upset and would like to speak with you."  Such will happen in every doctor’s career, and is an important moment.   When anyone perceives that someone else may be attacking them or their work, the default human reaction is to become defensive, angry, or worse still — attack back. It’s a moment that many don’t handle as well as they could. 

Here are the golden rules for when you get that inevitable call about the angry or upset patient or family member:

1. Take a deep breath. Dealing with this is part of a physician's job description. You are working in an emotionally charged field and meeting people at very low points in their lives. Being ill is a traumatic event, their whole life has been turned upside down, and they are frequently not themselves and may be overly sensitive. 

2. Do your homework before meeting. Try to get a handle about what the problem is. Then familiarize yourself with all of the necessary details before walking into the room.

3. Listen. When you enter the room, walk in calmly and confidently. If you know what the problem is and it's appropriate, apologize for what has happened immediately. Or you can say something like, "Sorry for the misunderstanding" or "Sorry that this has happened." Then comes a: "Tell me what happened" statement. Ask them to explain what transpired and how they feel. Just listen, listen, listen. Absorb everything. Don’t speak.

4. Go over things again. After they have had a chance to speak, it's your turn. Summarize succinctly what happened, apologize for any mishaps, and then tell them how the situation will be corrected. Formulate a clear strategy and emphasize that you are now looking ahead to the future. Ask them what else they think you can specifically do to help.

5. Close the loop. Don't just disappear afterward! Check in with them again either later the same day or the day after, to make sure everything has been addressed.

Three things you should never do include: acting defensively, dismissing a concern, or escalating the situation by aggressively defending the situation — no matter how you feel.  

Only a handful of people out there are really unreasonable. Well over 90% of the time, patient and family concerns and complaints have a solid basis. By utilizing good communication techniques, almost any angry or tense situation can be quickly calmed down. Get it wrong, however, and things can spiral out of control very quickly.

People are people, and the same emotions always apply, as do the skills for dealing with them.  Never under any circumstances respond to anger with anger, which only serves to pour fuel on the fire. Don't just react, but choose how you respond. Or as the famous neurologist and psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl said, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response." Deliberately go into the "zone" of being the active listener and problem solver, always showing the empathy and compassion of the good doctor.