If you’ve worked in healthcare for any length of time at all, you’ve no doubt heard many tips and tricks for dealing with “difficult” patients – listen carefully, acknowledge the person’s frustration, speak in a calm voice, work to solve the problem, apologize when appropriate, and so on. Much of this is old fashioned common sense coupled with professionalism. What is talked about much less, however, is understanding why patients may be “difficult” to begin with. Consider these three possible reasons, all related to diminished resilience, that may cause someone to exhibit ungracious behavior.
The patient is in pain or exhausted from trying to manage their own health. Think back to the last time you had a bad toothache, headache, or backache, or were on day five of a nasty flu. Your level of resilience for putting up with much of anything, even small irritations, was probably not very high. Pain and chronic illness in particular can wear a person down. When someone in this situation yells at you because they’ve been made to wait for ten minutes, try not to take it personally.
The patient is scared. Perhaps the gentleman who just hung up on you because you couldn’t get him on the schedule for this afternoon is sitting on pins and needles waiting for test results, and he’s scared out of his wits. Again, low resilience due to anxiety or stress results in impatience, and it has nothing to do with you or the level of service you provide. Some patients even show up in your office scared for no reason other than they fear being in a healthcare setting. Cut these folks a lot of slack by recalling a time when you were nervous or worried about something important.
The patient is overwhelmed. Let’s face it, everyone is busy these days. Being placed on hold for one minute can seem like a lifetime to the woman who is staring at an overflowing e-mail inbox (who isn’t?) while trying to get to a meeting she’s late for and subconsciously re-playing the argument she had with her teenager that morning. It’s a wonder we don’t all snap and growl more than we do! Life is complex and being chronically overwhelmed can result in a poor ability to cope with even minor annoyances. Do what you can to simplify things for your patients instead of complicating their day further.
Understanding how resilience comes into play when patients are difficult or challenging will hopefully help you have more compassion and tolerance when working with them. Use the ideas in this post, also, to become more aware when your own resilience may be low and how that might impact your mood.