There was a discussion recently in a Facebook group regarding frustrations with difficult patient encounters and advice on how to best manage these cases. Here below, I have provided a brief list of advice imparted onto me by mentors of mine. Hopefully this helps…..
One of the best pieces of advice a professor of mine gave me was “that you cannot control how people act, you can only control how you react”. This simple quote or credo is so incredibly true and is a great approach to life in general. People can be irrational and their actions frustrating, both of which may become magnified surrounding episodes of poor health.
Another thing to consider, which is a message I’ve adapted from an icon of mine Cael Sanderson, is that every challenge that you face is an opportunity for growth and that we should look forward to challenges; they make us better. Difficult patient encounters are opportunities to learn how to manage difficult patient encounters and it will get easier. It’s also always important to consider that the people we serve could choose elsewhere. They don’t have to be in our clinics. Even in public or federal systems, the patient can still choose to not show up. Take it as a privilege that YOU get to SERVE them and even though they may state that they don’t want to be there, they still decided to show up. Also realize, (and I’ve learned this working with many disadvantaged populations) for many people, even getting to the clinic may be more difficult than you may ever realize.
Regarding verbose patients; there are many people who come to our clinics who have never had the opportunity to speak to a healthcare provider about their problems. Some may not have the opportunity to share their frustrations with anyone who cares or has concern for them. This issue of social isolation and loneliness is a real and growing problem in our modern society. Therefore, consider it a privilege that they are comfortable enough to be verbose with you. Just taking time to listen to them can go a long way. In terms of managing verbosity, because there are time constraints to clinical practice, what I have found to be useful is to try to steer their conversation around the goals for the session or intercede with questions that may help redirect it. Always try to acknowledge what the patient has said before talking, this helps convey that you did listen to them (you really should be), which is important for building trust and rapport. This process can be difficult but it gets easier over time as well.
Regarding patients who are difficult to convince or establish buy-in for your plan of care, especially those who may believe in more liberal interpretations of physiology, be persistent and steadfast but always be respectful and considerate. Remember that few people possess the specific knowledge of human physiology to determine a falsehood from truth as it pertains to disease and 88% of US population is insufficiently healthcare literate. Given these factors, and others it is incredibly difficult to change someone’s views once they have internalized information; ie “You can’t sell meat to vegans and you can’t convince a carnivore to eat vegetables”. If their views interfere with your best judgment as a provider, consider referring them elsewhere; it’s probably best for both. We as a profession and field (healthcare) need to do a better job addressing this process of translating knowledge to our communities both at the clinic level and institutional level. But it all starts with a conversation and re-framing expectations with each individual. At the fundamental level, a clinician is an educator and motivator.
These are just some recommendations and tips. I don’t practice as much now but can recall how difficult it can be in the clinic and realize that things are rarely ideal and we all have our limits. However, if you consider some of these basic principles and perspectives, it helps make difficult situations a bit less stressful when they do occur.