Managing ‘Difficult’ Patient Encounters

Donald W. Black, MD


Curr Psychiatr. 2021;20(7):13-19. 

In This Article

A Model for Understanding Difficult Patient Encounters

Adams and Murray[2] created a model to help explain interactions with difficult or challenging patients that consists of 3 elements: the patient, the physician, and the system (ie, situation or environment). Hull and Broquet[8] and Hardavella et al[9] later adapted the model and described its components (Table 2[22,8,9]).

When considering difficult interactions, it is important to be aware that all 3 components could interact, or merely 1 or 2 could come into play, but all should be explored as possible contributing factors.

Patient Factors

The patient’s role in initiating or maintaining a problematic interaction should be explored. While some physicians are tempted to conclude that a personality disorder underlies difficult interactions, research shows a more complex picture. First, not all difficult patients have a psychiatric disorder, let alone a personality disorder. Jackson and Kroenke[6] reported that among 74 difficult patients in an ambulatory clinic, 29% had a depressive disorder or anxiety disorder, with 11% experiencing 2 or more disorders. Major depressive disorder was present in 8.4% patients, other depressive disorders in 17.4%, panic disorder in 1.4%, and other anxiety disorders in 14.2%.[6] These researchers found that difficult patient interactions were associated with the presence of a psychiatric disorder, especially depressive or anxiety disorders, and multiple physical symptoms.

Importantly, difficult patients are not unique to psychiatry, and are found in all medical disciplines and every type of practice situation. Some problematic patients have a substance use disorder, and their difficulty might stem from intoxication, withdrawal, or drug-seeking behaviors. Psychotic disorders can be the source of difficult interactions, typically resulting from the patient’s symptoms (ie, hallucinations, delusions, or bizarre behavior). Physicians tend to be forgiving toward these patients because they understand the extent of the individual’s illness. The same is true for a patient with dementia, who might be disruptive and loud, yet clearly is not in control of their behavior.

Koekkoek et al[5] reviewed 94 articles that focused on difficult patients seen in mental health settings. Most patients were male (60% to 68%), and most were age 26 to 32 years. Diagnoses of psychotic disorders and personality disorders were the most frequent, while mood and other disorders were less common. In 1 of the studies reviewed, 6% of psychiatric inpatients were considered difficult. Koekkoek et al[5] proposed that there are 3 groups of difficult patients:

  • care avoiders: patients with psychosis who lack insight

  • care seekers: patients who are chronically ill who have trouble maintaining a steady relationship with their caregivers

  • care claimers: patients who do not require long-term care, but need housing, medication, or a “declaration of incompetence.”

Physician Factors

Physicians are frequent contributors to bad interactions with their patients.[2,7,8] They can become angry or defensive because of burnout, stress, or frustration, which might lead them to snap or otherwise respond inappropriately to their patients. Many physicians are overworked, sleep-deprived, or busier than they would prefer. Personal problems can be preoccupying and contribute to a physician being ill-tempered or distracted (eg, marital or family problems). Some physicians are simply poor communicators and might not understand the need to adapt their communication style to their patient, instead using medical jargon the patient does not understand. Ideally, physicians should modify their language to suit the patient’s level of education, degree of medical sophistication, and cultural background.

A physician’s personality traits could clash with those of the patient, particularly if the physician is especially rigid or obsessional. Rather than “going with the flow,” the overly rigid physician might become impatient with patients who fail to understand diagnostic assessments or treatment recommendations. Inefficient physicians might not be able to keep up with the daily schedule, which could fuel impatience and perhaps even lead them to think that the patient is taking too much of their valuable time. Some might not know how to convey empathy, for example when giving bad news (“The tests show you have cancer…”). Others fail to make consistent eye contact with patients without understanding its importance to communication, a problem made worse by the use of electronic medical record systems (EMRs).

Systems Issues

Systems issues also contribute to suboptimal physician-patient interactions, and some issues can be attributed to administrative problems. Examples of systems issues include:

  • when a patient has difficulty making an appointment and is forced to listen to a confusing menu of choices

  • a busy clinic that can only offer a patient an appointment 6 months away

  • crowded or noisy waiting rooms

  • language barriers for patients whose primary langage is not English. Not having access to an interpreter can exacerbate their frustration

  • the use of EMRs is a growing threat to positive physician-patient interactions, yet their influence is often ignored. Widely disliked by physicians,[10] EMRs are required in all but the smallest independent practice settings. Many busy physicians focus their attention on the computer, giving the patient the impression that the physician is not listening to them. Many patients conclude that they are less important than the process.