6 Responses to Angry Patients

Almost every physician, at one time or another, has been the recipient of an angry outburst.

Almost every physician, at one time or another, has been the recipient of an angry outburst. The quick pace of today’s medical practice isn’t usually conducive to active listening and personal attention to patients. But it is important to step back and think about why your patients may be angry and what you can do to resolve the problem at the time it occurs.

An angry patient may be scared or embarrassed about having to visit a doctor in the first place. Or, they could be angry at someone or something completely unrelated to their health. Sometimes it is the processes in your office that trigger their ire: An overlong wait time, a rude receptionist, or even a harried physician can become the target of their frustrations. Whatever the reason, it is key to recognize their anger, acknowledge it, and if possible, resolve the problem.

Here are several strategies for dealing compassionately and effectively with your angry patients:

  • Acknowledge that the patient is angry. Oftentimes, acknowledging your patient’s anger and helping him work through his feelings is enough to resolve the problem. Remember, your patients are also individuals who need to be heard.

  • Focus on the patient. Don’t become distracted by your cell phone or anything else that may surface during your visit with the patient while she is in the exam room. The single most important person at that time is your patient.

  • Communicate with your patients, both verbally and nonverbally. You can calmly show your concern by listening attentively and looking at patients directly, giving them your full attention. When you are conducting the physical examination, try not to write or enter data into the EHR until you are done. Effective communication will not only diffuse anger, it can potentially stop a lawsuit. An angry patient is more likely to sue over a perceived wrong; listening is one of your best defenses.

  • Huddle with your staff before the clinic session starts. Meeting a few minutes prior to clinic to go over the schedule will help everyone better prepare. This may be the opportune time for your staff to alert you that there is an angry patient waiting to see you. Advance planning will help you stay on schedule, eliminate wait times, and reduce the likelihood of angry patients.

  • Say you’re sorry. Often, if you take responsibility upfront by apologizing for being late or for a less than optimal outcome, you can diffuse patient anger. Acknowledging that you are running behind shows respect for the patient’s schedule, which tends to breed goodwill in return.

  • Remove disruptive patients from your practice. Sometimes the angry patient is really the noncompliant patient. This patient frequently manages to stir up ill will when they visit your office. Sometimes, nothing else will work short of terminating the physician-patient relationship. Follow a reasonable approach by documenting your decision in the patient chart, and sending a letter of termination indicating the date you will no longer be available for care. You can also include a release of information form. Don’t be too wordy, simply separating the relationship is what is in order.

When considered together, these strategies should help address most of the “angry patient” scenarios you might encounter. The keys to success are recognition of patient anger, not taking it personally, and diffusing anger in a positive manner.

Owen Dahl, FACHE, CHBC, is a nationally recognized medical practice management consultant with over 26 years of experience in consulting for and managing medical practices and author of “Think Business! Medical Practice Quality, Efficiency, Profits” and “The Medical Practice Disaster Planning Workbook.” He can be reached at odahl@owendahlconsulting.com or 281 367 3364.