Career advice

Dealing with conflict Part 2: Managing misinformed patients

Easy access to medical information brings benefits for patients but only if the information is accurate. How should you respond when a consultation becomes challenging?

Easy access to medical information brings benefits for patients but only if the information is accurate. How should you respond when a consultation becomes challenging?


Picture: iStock

We recently found a lump on our dog’s paw. As we couldn’t see the vet for a few days we did what many others would do and took to Google. In our case the internet was fairly accurate with diagnosis and treatment, and our dog is back to his happy self. 

Afterwards, I began reflecting on the pros and cons of having endless medical information at our fingertips. 

On the upside, being informed can help patients feel more able to make decisions and take responsibility for their well-being. On the other hand, the easy access to information, which may not be accurate or could be misinterpreted, can leave people misinformed. As a result, patients or their relatives can become adamant that certain tests or treatments are needed. 

So, what do you do when a patient insists they know best and takes out their frustrations on you? 

Heated situations

According to the Nursing and Midwifery Council code, you have a duty to listen to patients and encourage them to take an active role in their care. Yet you also must always act in their best interests. 

With statistics from 2016 showing that two thirds of people search the internet before a medical consultation, sometimes your role may involve challenging conversations. 

When confronted with frustrated patients and seemingly unnecessary demands, try to adopt the same principles you would with any kind of conflict: listen and acknowledge concerns, remain calm, and don’t fuel an already heated situation.

Expectation versus facts

But you must also do your best to ensure your patients are basing their decisions on accurate information so balance patients’ expectations with facts. This isn’t always easy and there’s no guarantee patients will want to hear you. 

Here are some tips:

  • Avoid judging or criticising. Even if your words are appeasing, remember that your body language and tone of voice can reveal hidden emotions, adding fuel to the fire. Consider the results of a recent Belgian study, which found that searching online before an appointment can make a ‘positive contribution’ to consultations. Use the fact that your patient is engaging with their care in a constructive way. Without being condescending explain that, as anyone can post information online, it’s important to check sources before making decisions. Direct patients to trusted sites such as NHS Choices.
  • Find out what’s behind the frustration. Illness is scary and patients can often feel out of control, especially if their opinions are casually dismissed. Most of the time, information helps patients to feel included in what’s happening to them. Aim to establish what else could be going on.
  • Remain open. Patients have the right to a second opinion and sometimes this may be what’s needed to help move things forward. 

Mandy Day-Calder is a freelance writer and life/health coach


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