Healthcare professionals need to be ready to deal with a whole range of patients. Whilst we expect differences in their medical presentation, an angry patient can be a curveball we don’t expect.
We can be left flailing and unintentionally inflame the situation. However, understanding how to deal with an angry patient confidently can bring about a positive outcome.
Ultimately, as a healthcare professional you need to be ready to deal with angry patients and their angry family members.
The goal is to ultimately defuse the situation so that you can provide them with the most efficient and effective care, and bring about the most positive healthcare experience possible.
Follow this process for dealing with angry patients and you’ll remain professional, in control and capable:
There are two things you need to establish: what the problem is; and are they really angry, or is it a different emotion. In order to effectively do this, you need to listen.
Try to understand the message behind the anger. Did a process break down? Was there a miscommunication? Has there been a negative effect on the patient? Is the anger masking worry, fear or anxiety?
Therefore, actively listen to find out what the situation is. Ask questions and hear the response.
You can demonstrate active listening by reframing their words. For example: “I can tell the situation with your medication has been frustrating.”
When you listen to the patient, you can help break down why it is that they feel this way.
When you understand in greater detail why they're upset about something, it can be easier to break down steps to help make them feel a bit better or reduce their anger.
For instance, a patient might be angry due to the fact that they haven't seen a caretaker in quite some time. It can be easy to sit back and become frustrated with the situation and get bogged down in the stress, but you should take every opportunity you can to take a breath and evaluate the best way to handle the situation from their point of view. After all, there are 17 Anger Management Techniques for Stressful Occupations, that will help you understand why someone might be mad and deal with it properly in any stressful occupation, especially healthcare.
If you just joined your shift and are getting the wrath of their unhappiness, they could potentially be upset with the individual who was on the shift before.
It can be easy as a healthcare professional to take it personally when someone is upset because we care deeply about our patients.
Even though it's easy to care deeply about our patients and their concerns, we also need to become more comfortable with separating our feelings when patients are angry with us, so we don't take it too personally.
Sometimes a patient isn't really angry, they just want someone to talk to. That's why listening is such a powerful tool in defusing situations and is especially effective in knowing how to deal with angry patients.
One of the easiest ways to diffuse anger is to match it with understanding and empathy. One such way is to place yourself in the shoes of the patient and get a perspective of why they're upset, and figure out how you can improve their standing.
Through your active listening skills, you should be able to imagine the impact of the situation on them. If this is hard, imagine they are someone you love and care about.
Remain professional but acknowledge that you empathize with how they are feeling.
When you declare that you understand how they feel, and are going to take steps to ensure that they feel better or that their care improves, their anger will quickly subside because they have been reassured that they are being cared for.
Ultimately, that's what they are looking for. They are looking for someone to help empathize with their situation, and understand how they are feeling so they can receive the care they need to improve their overall well-being.
Try to avoid rigid thoughts of who is right and who is wrong at this stage. Acknowledge that they are entitled to feel frustrated, angry, upset or worried.
This way you can help defuse the situation, and help reduce the tension that they might be causing.
Anger often stems from a feeling of powerlessness or lack of control. That's why it's so important to learn how to control anger effectively. There are fewer situations where it can feel like you are powerless than the healthcare or hospital environment.
Patients oftentimes feel as if they can do nothing to improve their situations. It can be a rough adjustment for some patients to understand that they have to trust their care in someone else's hands.
The patient likely views you as having the control. Even if it’s not you personally, you represent the institution, procedure or process which has led to how they feel.
This means that from an outside perspective or a certain point of view, that they have an involuntary option to trust that you will provide the best care you possibly can.
One way that you can reduce their anxiety or worry about their anger stemming from an inability to act and improve their level of health is to use the skills we mentioned above and then act upon what you hear or what the patient is stating.
Therefore, it is your responsibility to act in order to solve the cause of the problem.
Some of the ways that you can act to reduce some of the anger that a patient is currently experiencing is to help potentially provide further explanation about the care they are receiving, advocating on their behalf to doctors or fellow team members, putting in place steps to ensure things happen on a more timely schedule, or it may even be trying a new plan.
There are plenty of various things you can do to help improve a patient's unhappiness, and it all starts from using the skills we mentioned above: listening, and then empathizing with their situation.
The great thing about the healthcare industry, is that you are in a unique position to help improve their state of being, and all it takes is a little action to deal with some of the things that they currently view as problems.
As anger diffuses it is essential to communicate thoughtfully to prevent it rearing its ugly head again. In many cases, healthcare and hospital patients will indicate that they feel angry because of a lack of communication.
In the healthcare industry, it's easy to talk in complex lingo or code phrases to express something, and as healthcare professionals those code phrases or healthcare lingo is generally understood.
The problem with this, is that even though you and your healthcare professionals might understand what you're saying, or the intention behind your words - patients don't understand what that means.
In addition, another thing that you need to consider is that patients don't always have a keen grasp on why certain healthcare action plans are being undertaken.
For instance, if someone has complained of pain in their leg - they might not understand why they are taking walks around the building after a couple days.
To the patient, it seems as if the hospital or healthcare facility is attempting to make them suffer from a hurt knee by walking around the building, but in reality it is to strengthen the muscles and promote long-term healing.
In essence, this means healthcare professionals can help diffuse some of the anger that patients demonstrate or express by better communication in both the way we explain their condition, their care procedure, and the reasoning behind some of the treatment plans that the patient is undergoing.
Communicate your understanding of their situation and the steps you are going to take.
In doing so, you can help provide a clearer picture about their care procedure, the goals that you are attempting to achieve, and the commitment between both the healthcare provider and the patient.
Another problem that can arise in communication is between the expected time that the level of care is going to take. Explain timescales and set expectations. Reassure them and mean what you say. Ensure you both agree with the outcomes.
When you take the time to explain all of that information to your patients, you can also reduce aggression or anger before it even rises. You have to explain to them that this is a process.
That the healthcare treatment plans they might undergo are part of a process that ultimately lead to them getting better.
Speak calmly, consistently, and directly, and demonstrate an understanding of any questions they might have regarding their care.
When you do this, your ability to communicate will get better, and the communication between you and your patients will ultimately improve over time.
Do bear in mind that anger may be out of character for the patient as well. If you've ever been upset when you were sick or had a lack of sleep then you can empathize with the patient when they don't feel particularly well and are acting out because of it.
It's important to remember that patients won't be acting like their normal-self when they don't feel well.
It may be due to illness or medication and therefore becomes a symptom in itself, and can be expressed through lashing out at you or one of your co-workers.
Anger can also be fuelled by drug or alcohol use. When patients are forced to receive long-term care, they might be experiencing a form of withdrawal symptoms.
Those withdrawal symptoms might cause them anger unintentionally while they are receiving care for the short-term.
You also want to bear in mind that anger can come from a myriad of sources, as we've discussed throughout this article.
It can be due to waiting times, misunderstanding, feeling unwell, feeling scared, inconsistencies in care, and more.
This is why you must listen first, and then communicate effectively once you are done listening to them. Simply being heard about some of the problems that the patient is experiencing or alleviating their concerns can diffuse a confrontation.
Whilst the anger may catch you off guard because you weren't experiencing it before during your shift or it is completely out of character for the respective patient, remember that patients have a right to feel angry, as long as they demonstrate it appropriately.
When you're dealing with an angry patient, it is also important to recognize the signs of a potentially dangerous patient or patient that might be erratic and cause harm. If you feel threatened or in danger then seek out additional support.
In nearly all cases, the anger that a patient demonstrates is easily resolved through more adequate communication, and will never progress further than a simple outburst or expression of their frustration.
However, most situations with an angry patient can become opportunities to improve their level of care and make their experience more enjoyable if we deal with them calmly and through the above approaches.
If you feel that the stress you encounter from angry patients is rising, we have put together a Top 10 list of best tips on How To Relieve Stress For Medical Jobs.
About the Author
Jonathon Clarke is the CEO of Locate A Locum, which is a locum pharmacist job platform that helps locum pharmacists find shifts while helping pharmacies fill their shifts.