Dealing With Challenging Patients: A Guide for Healthcare Professionals

Working in healthcare often means interacting with people during vulnerable times in their lives. Though most patients are appreciative of the care they receive, some may become confrontational or difficult to work with. As a healthcare professional, it’s important to remain compassionate and professional, even when dealing with challenging patients. With the right approach, you can often diffuse tense situations and improve the patient experience.

Understanding the Root of the Behavior

When a patient acts confrontational, it’s usually not about you personally. Oftentimes, it stems from fear, stress, confusion, or feeling a lack of control over their situation. Consider what circumstances may be affecting the patient’s state of mind:

  • They may not fully understand their diagnosis, treatment plan, or prognosis. Clarifying these can help ease anxiety.
  • They may feel powerless in the healthcare environment. Giving them choices when possible reminds them they still have autonomy.
  • They may worry about finances, family issues, work, and other stresses. Acknowledging their outside pressures shows empathy.
  • They may have had poor experiences with healthcare in the past, leaving them distrustful. Patience and active listening can help build rapport.

When you make an effort to understand where the patient is coming from, it’s easier to respond in a professional manner.

Maintaining Professionalism

Staying calm and professional benefits both the patient and you. Here are some best practices when interacting with a confrontational patient:

  • Use a kind, even tone. Do not match their anger or volume.
  • Be attentive through eye contact and focused listening. Avoid distractions.
  • Clarify what specifically about the situation is upsetting them. Do not make assumptions.
  • Thank them for voicing their concerns and validate their feelings. “I appreciate you telling me when something is unsatisfactory.”
  • Remain solution-oriented. “Let’s work together to help you better understand your medication instructions.”
  • If emotions escalate, politely suggest taking a break. Pick up the conversation again when things have calmed down.
  • Set boundaries as needed. If they use hostile language, calmly say, “I cannot allow abusive speech.”

Staying professional protects the therapeutic relationship so you can continue caring for the patient. It also mitigates risk for you and your healthcare organization.

Employing Effective Communication Techniques

The way you communicate can greatly impact confrontational exchanges. Use these communication strategies:

  • Ask open-ended questions to better understand the patient’s perspective.
  • Restate what they share to confirm you understand them correctly.
  • Speak plainly in terms they can understand. Avoid technical jargon.
  • Check often for their understanding. Have them explain concepts back to you.
  • Be transparent about next steps in their care. Uncertainty can feed anger.
  • Offer realistic solutions, but do not make false promises. Manage expectations.
  • Close each interaction positively. Express hope they feel better supported moving forward.

Clear, compassionate communication promotes cooperation. It can prevent tense moments from spiraling while allowing the focus to remain on the patient’s wellbeing.

Calling In Help When Needed

In extreme situations, it may help to involve a supervisor or security. Consider requesting assistance if:

  • A patient becomes verbally abusive, making threats or shouting obscentities.
  • A patient seems on the verge of violence, such as throwing objects.
  • You feel physically unsafe due to intimidation or inappropriate remarks.
  • De-escalation efforts have failed, leaving you stuck in a nonproductive loop.
  • The patient makes unreasonable demands, like prescription medication.

While calling for backup should not be a go-to move, you do not need to endure abuse. Your organization likely has systems in place to handle severely escalated cases.

Looking After Your Own Well-Being

Coping with confrontation can be emotionally taxing for care providers. Be sure to practice self-care when you experience a challenging situation:

  • Take a break to decompress and process your emotions after the encounter.
  • Do not internalize the patient’s words – they likely do not reflect how you performed.
  • Share your experience with a trusted colleague. Talking it through can provide perspective.
  • Review what went well and what you could improve to empower yourself for future cases.
  • Give yourself grace. Even experienced doctors deal with difficult patients sometimes.

You cannot control a patient’s behavior. But by communicating with empathy, you can often achieve greater understanding between you, making conflicts easier to resolve.


Dealing With Challenging Patients often respond best to healthcare professionals who remain calm, attentive, and constructive. Employing compassion, setting boundaries, using clear communication, and knowing when to call for assistance will help you navigate these challenging scenarios. With time and experience, you will gain confidence in dealing with distressed and confrontational patients while advocating for their needs. Just remember to also care for yourself in the process. The more you are able to do this, the more your patients will benefit.

Leave a comment