As a professional care provider, it is your responsibility to treat patients with respect and compassion regardless of their behavior. However, while you and your staff work diligently to promote a healthy and positive environment, there may be times when you encounter a difficult patient—either because they are suffering from pain or discomfort, or perhaps because they feel frightened or anxious about their condition.
It is important to remember that countless external factors may cause patients to act out, for instance by behaving offensively in your office or using abusive language when speaking to your staff. You may also encounter patients who fail to show up for appointments or who are consistently late and disrespectful of your and your staff's time. The following is a list of simple steps you can take to foster a positive and respectful relationship with your patients.
1. Lead with empathy and acknowledgement. Negative behavior often stems from a patient's underlying feelings of fear or anxiety. Sometimes, managing a situation is as simple as reassuring an individual and taking the time to help educate them about a condition or an upcoming procedure. When speaking with patients, keep your tone level, and maintain eye contact to let them know they have your undivided attention. Listen to their concerns, and let them know you understand how they feel and will work with them to ensure the best possible outcomes. Pay attention to your body language and the words you use, and keep an eye out for non-verbal cues from the patient that may signal apprehension.
2. Practice effective communication. Before you blame a difficult patient for a communication issue, ask yourself whether or not you are doing everything possible to communicate effectively and address their needs and concerns. Good communication involves not just listening to your patients, but also paying close attention to their voice and body language, as well as providing thoughtful and compassionate responses. Often, communication problems stem from strict time constraints that many clinical settings impose. Recognizing that you need to slow down with a particular patient can go a long way toward addressing a problem successfully.
3. Establish clear and healthy boundaries. In a busy ophthalmic office, you and your staff interact with numerous patients on a daily basis. It stands to reason that not all of those interactions will be positive. That said, standardizing your approach and providing clear boundaries right from the start may help to reduce negative patient interactions. For example, when communicating with a patient who frequently misses appointments, do your best to explain—clearly and calmly—why such behavior is both disrespectful (to you, your staff, and other patients) and disruptive to your practice. If a patient becomes belligerent with you or a member of your team, inform them immediately that this type of behavior is not accepted. Explain that good relationships rely on mutual respect, and as you are treating the patient with care and consideration, they should extend the same courtesy to you.
4. Don't take it personally. In a clinical workplace, personnel often have a number of stressors to deal with on a daily basis. When patients become hard to handle, it is crucial that you and your staff members do not take it personally. Often, problematic patients are dealing with personal issues that may be interacting with their mood or behavior. In other words: it's typically not about you. Do your best to calm and reassure difficult patients and ask what you can do to help them.
5. Know when it's time to terminate. A lot of managing problem patients is knowing how to keep your cool. Unfortunately, despite your best efforts, there are some situations that will require you to terminate your relationship with a patient in a respectful and fair manner. While you should always aim to resolve patient issues amicably and respectfully, it is important to have a termination process in place. Be sure that you know and understand your organizational policies for this type of situation, and explain to the patient why you are referring them to another medical professional so that they can get the treatment they need.
One important thing to keep in mind is that you are not alone; every ophthalmic practice struggles with difficult patient interactions at times. Fortunately, taking the right steps and having clear policies in place can help you avoid potential issues and facilitate better patient interaction in the future.