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Dealing with Awkward Patient Encounters


Illness can lead to trying and often tender times for patients and their loved ones. Here are five ways physicians can manage intimate patient encounters.

Injury and illness, whether acute or chronic, can lead to trying - and often tender - times for patients and their loved ones; which is why they deserve opportunities to bond, reflect, and commune in private to release emotional and physical tension. This goal is great in theory, until you unexpectedly walk in on an intimate moment.

Intimate moments can be classified into three categories: emotional, spiritual, and passionate. Think of the acronym ESP as a reminder.

• Emotional. Uncontrollable emotions erupt in times of pain, fear, and despair. People respond to medical circumstances in a variety of unpredictable ways. When someone learns they have a terminal illness, for example, it is perfectly natural for them to break down. But not everyone reacts the same way. Medical practitioners need to be prepared for anything and sensitive enough to allow patients the chance to absorb shock in their own way. Sometimes that means doing whatever possible to provide them time to be alone or in the company of their family or friends.

• Spiritual. These times include personal rituals like prayer, meditation, and visualization. Even though peace and quiet is hard to come by in a doctor's office, patients still deserve the opportunity to express their feelings as much as possible. For many, that means stilling their mind through a spiritual, religious, or metaphysical practice. While you don't need to walk on eggshells during these periods, it is thoughtful to excuse yourself if possible.

• Passionate. Walking in on a patient who is in the midst of a moment of passion, such as a romantic rendezvous or sensual embrace, is the most awkward experience of all. In fact, it can be downright embarrassing for everyone involved. Interrupting a tryst can be traumatic, even for the most experienced healthcare professional. That said, sexual urges are a fact of life, and hospital patients - especially long-term ones - need to be able to answer nature's most intimate call. Intrusions can, however, be minimized. Through frank discussions and mutually respectful boundaries, you can work with your patients to find solutions that satisfy everyone's needs.

Here are five guidelines to help you handle an awkward patient encounter, whether it's emotional, spiritual, or passionate in nature:

1. Announce yourself. It doesn't matter whether you're approaching a closed door or a drawn curtain, it's always best to physically or verbally knock. Doing this consistently will help you avoid placing yourself in a compromising position.

2. Apologize. If you do happen to walk in on a private moment, a simple statement like, "I'm sorry for the interruption" or "Excuse me, please" or "Pardon me" will do.

3. Acknowledge. It's OK to acknowledge that the moment was uncomfortable for everyone. In fact, verbalizing it can lessen the discomfort. Just admit it and move on.

4. Ask. Allow your patient (and, potentially, the patient's partner) the opportunity to compose themselves and feel a sense of control over the situation by asking a question like, "Do you need a moment?" or, "Would you like me to come back in a few minutes?"

5. Accept. These things happen. If you notice that a patient has a regular spiritual practice, ask about it so you can try to adjust your schedule accordingly.

It would be wonderful if we were intuitive enough to avoid awkward moments altogether. Barring that, we can use ESP as a resource to help us handle such incidents with diplomacy and grace.

Sue Jacques is The Civility CEO®, a veteran forensic medical investigator turned corporate civility consultant, professional speaker, and author. Jacques helps individuals and businesses gain confidence, earn respect, create courteous corporate cultures, and prosper through professionalism. www.TheCivilityCEO.com.

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