Careers

Dealing with angry patients

With healthcare services stretched, frustrations can arise among patients and relatives. Mandy Day-Calder offers some suggestions about how to respond when feelings run high

With healthcare services stretched, frustrations can arise among patients and relatives. Mandy Day-Calder offers some suggestions about how to respond when feelings run high


Picture: iStock

I have a ‘milestone’ birthday this year and by this grand ‘old’ age I know myself well. I am usually patient and tolerant. Yet I was shocked recently at how angry I became during a lengthy call to a mobile phone customer service team.

Although there were factors in my defence, I have pondered why I got so irritable. My frustrations were not, on the whole, aimed at an individual. Instead I felt powerless against ‘the system’.

Having reflected on the ordeal, it seems easy to draw parallels with how patients and relatives may feel when faced with an over-stretched healthcare system.

Convenient target

How you respond to their anger will have an impact, but staying calm and professional is not always easy, especially if you are just as frustrated as them about what’s going on.

No healthcare worker should have to accept physical or verbal abuse. But given the number of patients facing such issues as unacceptable waits and cancelled appointments it is understandable that frustrations rise.

Misplaced harsh or bitter words from patients can sting, but it is not usually about you. You are simply a convenient target, as was the customer service operator in my case.

Consider these strategies

Taking things personally may add fuel to the fire when ideally you want to turn the heat down. So, hard as it is, next time you feel you are being used as a verbal punchbag consider these strategies:

  • Reframe the situation. It can help to hypothetically step out of your role and see the situation from the other person’s view. This enables you to respond from a more compassionate and empathic place. But you may need to practise in calm situations so that you can adapt in the heat of the moment. Sometimes imagining you are looking down from a helicopter can help to get a different perspective. 
  • Actively listen to what is being said. When someone speaks in anger, rational thinking is lost, so try not to judge. 
  • Watch your tone of voice. When patients are shouting at you it can be easy to raise your voice in return. Yet instead of defusing the situation you may just draw others in.
  • Gauge your own frustration. Practise quickly scanning your body to see where you are holding tension. 
  • Apologise when necessary, but avoid being defensive or putting blame onto others.
  • Where possible offer a solution or plan. Sometimes this will include informing patients about the complaints process.
  • If you feel you are in danger of ‘losing it’ step away and seek the help of another nurse immediately.

Dealing with any kind of confrontation is stressful, so always take a few minutes out afterwards. And whatever you do, avoid phoning call centres until you feel much calmer.


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

 

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