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Dealing with difficult people in the GP practice – Patients

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In our last blog post, we discussed how to deal with difficult employees. In this post, we'll look at dealing with difficult patients. You'll learn why patients can be so difficult, how to tackle them, and how to learn from every difficult patient that steps into your GP practice.

What is a difficult patient?

Have you ever had a day that has gone smoothly from the moment you opened the practice door to the public? I thought not. Not every patient is polite. Not every patient is happy. He or she may be angry, confused, or impatient. There may be raised voices, swearing, and even violent behaviour. On the other hand, a patient may be withdrawn and non-compliant.

Why can patients be so difficult?

There are a variety of reasons that patients become difficult. Some, of course, may be naturally cantankerous. For the majority, though, their difficult nature is temporary and caused by circumstance. They may be unsure of what is happening (and why), or might feel that they aren't being listened to.

The first thing to remember is that a difficult patient's behaviour is rarely (if ever) personal. Even the rudest and most aggressive patient doesn't know you. There is an almost infinite number of reasons for a patient's bad behaviour. These include head injury, dementia or Alzheimer's, bereavement, alcohol or drug dependency, etc.

A strategy for dealing with difficult patients

When you're dealing with any patient, it's important that you know his or her history – doing so could be the key to understanding behaviour, and also being prepared for it. Use these seven pointers when dealing with difficult patients:

1. Be compassionate

Show compassion, and let the patient know that he or she is not simply a number on your screen. Show that you care about them, and that your aim is to provide the best care and treatment possible.

2. See it from the patient's point of view

A patient may need tests and treatment that are alien and uncomfortable for them. This is bound to increase stress, and when stress levels rise, tempers become frayed. Let them air their grievances, be empathetic, and calming.

3. Avoid being judgemental

Keep your personal feelings to yourself – often difficult to do when dealing with drug addicts (people who 'should know better'). A patient's current situation may have been caused by circumstances beyond his or her control, or may be a personal choice. You may never find out the truth. Your job is to help the patient access the best treatment available in a caring environment.

4. Learn to recognise an explosive situation

It's easier to diffuse an angry person before his or her temper explodes. Anger will be misplaced 99 times out of 100, and directed at you or another member of your practice staff. Keep calm, and talk the patient down before his or her anger has reached boiling point. Learn to spot the signs of an angry patient, such as furrowed brows, pursed lips, gritted teeth, and a reddening face.

5. Show the patient that you understand

Make sure you listen to what the patient is saying, and confirm your understanding by repeating back. If a patient is making a complaint, remain calm, reassuring, and understanding. Use language that displays empathy ("I understand how you must be feeling").

6. Avoid conflict

Whatever you do, don't get drawn into an argument. The first time you do, any onlookers will be witness to an unprofessional act. You'll lose their support (albeit tacit). Remain calm and collected, and you'll remain in control.

7. Stay safe

Whatever happens, you must stay safe. Don't be nervous of calling the reinforcements and asking for help. Never become aggressive with an aggressive patient; instead remain calm and in control. Learn a few basic self-defence techniques for if things do get out of hand.

What can you learn from difficult patients?

Dealing with a difficult patient is never a pleasant experience. However, there is always something to be learned. Did you react well? Was there something different that you could have said or done? What were the warning signs that you missed?

Dissect each difficult patient event and learn from it. You'll soon find that the number of difficult patients who enter your GP practice decreases.

eSupplies Medical is a trading name of Williams Medical Supplies Ltd, a DCC business