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Family physician Sarah Parrott offers a primer on managing angry patients the right way, instead of losing your cool.
As a clinic-based family doctor (and in my former life as a hospitalist), I have encountered my fair share of angry patients. While a resident, I used whatever method was recommended by the current attending physician. If Attending “A” favored “fight fire with fire,” then I lit my match. If Attending “B” wanted me to find out what abuses the patient suffered as a child that might contribute to his emotional pain, then I did a little bedside therapy.
After graduation, I decided to forgo the boxing gloves or pretending to be a therapist. Meeting anger with anger escalates the encounter, and I cannot instantly change a patient’s ability to handle stress. Instead, I now try to meet patients in the middle through negotiation, realizing that spending an extra five or 10 minutes with an angry patient may save the day’s schedule in the long run.
If I could write a primer on “handling angry patients,” it would go something like this:
In the end, some patients won’t be pacified. They may, indeed, need cognitive therapy to work through their issues, but unless you are a psychiatrist, that’s not for you to address in a 15-minute time slot. Staying calm and focusing on resolving the problem will serve both you and the patient best.
Afterward, I recommend you treat yourself to a little pampering - a mani-pedi, an hour at the driving range, or whatever “pampering” means to you. Why? Because you can count on another angry patient in a few days, weeks, or months, waiting to tell you what-for. Be ready by keeping your emotional reserves fully charged.
Sarah Parrott, DO, is an assistant professor of family medicine at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, Mo. She can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org. This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Physicians Practice.