Managing ‘Difficult’ Patient Encounters

Donald W. Black, MD


Curr Psychiatr. 2021;20(7):13-19. 

In This Article

How to Manage Challenging Situations

Taking the following steps can help physicians work through challenging situations with their patients.

Diagnose the problem. First, recognize the difficult situation, analyze it, and identify how the patient, the physician, and the system are contributing to a bad physician-patient interaction. Diagnosing the interactional difficulty should precede the diagnosis and management of the patient’s disease. Physicians should acknowledge their own contribution through their attitude or actions. Finally, determine if there are system issues that are contributing to the problem, or if it is the clinic or inpatient setting itself (eg, noisy inpatient unit).

Maintain your cool. With any difficult interaction, a physician’s first obligation is to remain calm and professional, while modeling appropriate behavior. If the patient is angry or emotionally intense, talking over them or interrupting them only makes the situation worse. Try to see the interaction from the patient’s perspective. Both parties should work together to find a common ground.

Collaborate, respect boundaries, and empathize. One study of a group of 100 family physicians found that having the following 3 skills were essential to successfully managing situations with difficult patients[11,12]:

  • the ability to collaborate (vs opposition)

  • the appropriate use of power (vs misuse of power, or violation of boundaries by either party)

  • the ability to empathize, which for most physicians involves understanding and validating the patient’s subjective experiences.

Although a description of the many facets of empathy (cognitive, affective, motivational) is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth pointing out that a patient’s positive perception of their physician’s empathy improves not only patient satisfaction but health outcomes.[13] The Box describes a difficult patient whose actions changed through the collaboration and empathy of his treatment team.

Verbalize the difficulty. It is important to openly discuss the problem. For example, “We both have very different views about how your symptoms should be investigated, and that’s causing some difficulty between us. Do you agree?” This approach names the “elephant in the room” and avoids casting blame. It also creates a sense of shared ownership by externalizing the problem from both the patient and physician. Verbalizing the difficulty can help build trust and pave the way to working together toward a common solution.

Consider other explanations for the patient’s behavior. For example, anger directed at a physician could be due to anxiety about an unrelated matter, such as the patient’s recent job loss or impending divorce. Psychiatrists might understand this behavior better as displacement, which is considered a maladaptive defense mechanism. It is important to listen to the patient and offer empathy, which will help the patient feel supported and build a rapport that can help to resolve the encounter.

When helping patients with multiple issues, which is a common scenario, the physician might start by asking, “What would you like to address today?”[14] Keep a list of the issues so you do not forget the patient’s concerns, and then ask: “What do you think is going on?” Give patients time to verbalize their concerns. Physicians should:

  • validate concerns: “I understand where you’re coming from.”

  • offer empathy: “I can see how difficult this has been for you.”

  • reframe: “Let me make sure I hear you correctly.”

  • refocus: “Let’s agree on what we need to do at this visit.”

Find common ground. When the patient and physician have different ideas on diagnosis or treatment, finding common ground is another way to resolve a difficult encounter. Difficulties arise when there appears to be little common ground, which often results from unrealistic expectations. Patients might be seen as “demanding” or “manipulative”’ if they push for a diagnosis or treatment the doctor is not comfortable with. As soon as there is some overlap and common ground, the difficulty rapidly subsides.

Set clear boundaries and limits. Physicians should set limits on what patient behavior might “cross the line.” A “behavioral contract” (or “treatment contract”) can help by setting explicit expectations. For example, showing up late for appointments or inappropriately seeking drugs of abuse (eg, opioids, benzodiazepines) might be identified as violations of the contract. Once the contract is set, the patient should be asked to restate key components. Clarify any confusion or barriers to compliance and define clear expectations. The patient should be informed of potential consequences of contract violations, including termination.

Staff members involved in the patient’s care should agree with the terms of any behavioral contract, and should receive a copy of it. Patients should have “buy in,” meaning that they have had an opportunity to provide input to the contract and have agreed to its elements. Both the physician and patient should sign the document.