You’ve always known you wanted to become a nurse and help others for a living. You’re nearing the end of the difficult journey through nursing school and can see the light at the end of the tunnel. All of your hard work is about to pay off as you’ll finally earn your scrubs.
But beneath all of the excitement, there is one fear that is still in the back of your mind: What if you encounter a difficult patient?
You’ve heard the horror stories about unpleasant patients and will likely cross paths with one someday. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer that applies to every situation, but there are strategies you can use to help navigate tricky interactions with difficult patients.
We spoke to seasoned nurses to get their take on dealing with difficult patients. Use their advice to help you work with challenging patients as you begin your new nursing career.
10 expert tips for dealing with difficult patients
Handling difficult patients comes with the territory of your new nursing career. You want to be prepared as you enter the workforce. Take advantage of this expert advice to help you diffuse these situations or perhaps avoid them altogether.
1. Don’t take it personally
"Just knowing that the nastiness is not about you is a good start."
It’s easy to think a difficult patient is upset with you personally, but that’s almost never the case, according to Julianne Haydel, veteran nurse turned nurse consultant at Haydel Consulting Services.
Remember that the patient is dealing with unfortunate circumstances and likely isn’t in the best mood. Continue to do your job and don’t let their negativity get in your head. “Just knowing that the nastiness is not about you is a good start,” says Haydel.
2. Look for the underlying cause
Many patients are dealing with medical conditions, pain or side effects from medications that can alter their mood and make them more irritable. Sometimes you can alleviate a patient’s bad mood by determining the underlying cause of the problem.
“Look at why a patient may be overly critical, passive aggressive or downright mean,” advises Haydel. For example, a patient experiencing irritability as a side effect of medication may be able to receive a lower dose or be placed on an alternative treatment plan.
3. Learn to prioritize
An agitated patient may try to goad you into tending to their needs above your other patients. It’s important to view your patients’ needs objectively and prioritize, recommends Nick Angelis, nurse anesthetist and author.
“All nurses need a healthy sense of what’s important and what won’t diminish quality of care if it never gets done,” says Angelis. Never neglect a patient in need because you feel pressured into helping a difficult patient who doesn’t require immediate care.
4. Show that you care
Sometimes difficult patients make a fuss about minor requests because they feel like no one is listening to them. Set aside your frustration with the patient and do what you can to meet their needs, as long as it doesn’t take away from other patients’ level of care.
Angelis recalls swallowing his pride and getting a second cup of coffee for a particularly irritable patient: “I stayed gracious and her whole demeanor changed. She just wanted to know that someone cared and she wasn’t going to be ignored.”
5. Know your strengths & weaknesses
Angelis says simply being aware of your strengths and weaknesses in tough situations can help you prepare for difficult patient interactions.
For example, you may be able to rely on your good sense of humor to keep you feeling positive or to improve a patient’s mood. If you’re easily discouraged by negative comments, you can plan to take a few moments to yourself to regroup before moving on in your workday.
6. Pay attention
Nurses may be able to prevent difficult situations before they happen just by being observant, according to Angelis. Learn to recognize pathological processes that may soon cause a patient pain or distress and be on the lookout for escalating social situations. You may be able to diffuse a tense situation before it starts.
7. Stay calm
It’s easy to become annoyed, irritated and angry when you’re faced with a difficult patient. Taking your frustration out on the patient will only make matters worse. Staying calm will help you ease tension and keep the situation from escalating.
Don’t hide your feelings behind fake smiles, Angelis advises. That will only make you more stressed. Instead, try taking some deep breaths and pausing outside a patient’s room to collect your emotions and calm down.
8. Connect with the patient
No one wants to be just another patient. Taking the time to get to know and connect with a difficult patient is a great way to show you care about them as a person and not just another item your to-do list.
“Talk to the family and try to get to know the patient through their eyes,” recommends Haydel. Ask questions about their hobbies, job and likes and dislikes. “By seeing the patient as an individual, it’s easier to tolerate his demands and be compassionate,” says Haydel. Who knows? Getting to know your patient may make their negative mood go away altogether!
9. Don’t accept abuse
It’s never in a nurse’s job description to be the victim of verbal abuse from an agitated patient. “You must be careful not to establish habits where you are accepting abusive behavior or continually confronting patients,” Angelis says.
"You must be careful not to establish habits where you are accepting abusive behavior."
The line between a patient who is abrasive and abusive will depend on your work environment. A nurse working in a prison will likely have a different tolerance for abusive behavior than a nurse in an intensive care unit. Try following this rule of thumb: If a patient continues to be abusive after you’ve told them their behavior is unacceptable, it’s time to alert your immediate supervisor.
No matter what the circumstances, never hesitate to call hospital security if you feel a patient is placing you in physical danger.
10. Focus on patient care
All patients deserve the best care you’re able to provide—even the difficult ones. Make it your main focus to deliver excellent, positive care to all of your patients. Even if a patient remains agitated, you’ll leave your shift knowing that you did your job to the best of your ability.
Keep your cool in your new nursing career
Dealing with difficult patients is never fun, but it doesn’t have to stop you from enjoying your rewarding nursing career thanks to these expert tips.
As a nurse, you’ll have the rewarding opportunity to work with patients from all walks of life. Sometimes this results in unexpected situations, so it’s important to be prepared to handle yourself confidently. Learn about the importance of critical thinking skills in nursing.