How to Handle the Angry Patient

Angry patients. We’ve all experienced them.

Whether you’re a nursing student on clinical rotations, a brand-new nurse just starting your career, or an experienced nursing staff – it is inevitable that you encounter an angry patient (or two) at some point during your work experiences.

Patients get angry, from time-to-time. And who wouldn’t?

I think about this a lot.

As a patient, you’re scared, lonely, and unsure of the outcome. Most of the information you receive from your healthcare team you really don’t completely understand. It’s uncomfortable to be out of your home and away from your routine. And, as a patient, you give up control while entrusting your life in the care of total strangers.

Since every nurse will experience at least ONE angry patient in their nursing career- it’s best if we are prepared to deal with them.

Here Are Five Strategies for Handling the Angry Patient:

1) Put yourself in their shoes. As stated above, being a patient is scary stuff. You don’t know what’s going to happen and you’re worried about your health outcomes. A nurse has an opportunity to choose how they react to this upset patient. You can react- becoming angry yourself while dealing with a difficult patient. Or, you can remember their complete discomfort and empathize with them in these trying times.

2) Just breathe. Escalating the situation by reacting back at an angry patient will not help anyone. When you realize that your patient has become upset, you need to do everything in your power to stay calm. A simple technique that is always at your disposal is the breath. Pause and take a slow, long inhale through the nose. At the top of the breath, wait for a moment and state an empowering mantra. You may try something like this: “I choose to stay calm in each and every situation today.” Then, slowly exhale while bringing a soft smile to your lips.

3) Kill them with kindness. I once published a post on LinkedIn that discussed how to handle challenging coworkers. While interacting with an upset patient may not be the exact same situation- I do think that the advice that I received from nurses reading that post is applicable here to this topic today. One nurse came to the conversation thread and said, “When I have a negative nurse on my team, I kill them with kindness. I do everything and anything to smile, say positive things, and treat them with compassion and respect.” This nurse giving the advice to us readers went on to say that, in doing so, the colleague that was showing up nasty in the workplace realized their behavior as negative and made positive changes on their own!

4) Ask questions. Sometimes a patient is upset because they feel like they are not being heard. Rightfully so, since in the healthcare environment, we pretty much strip patients of all of the “normalcy” of life. We tell them what to do and when. We bring them food that we want them to eat and scold them for making unhealthy choices. If a patient is angry, one simple thing you may want to try is just asking them what is wrong. Maybe it doesn’t even have to do with their current care. In fact, you may find out that they are worried about a bill that they have to pay and you can help them troubleshoot options for solutions during the time that they are with you. Approaching situations with curiosity helps de-escalate them from blowing way out of proportion.

5) Meet them where they are at. Recently, I had the opportunity to enter the healthcare environment from the other side of the rail. My aunt was admitted to the hospital unexpectedly while I was visiting. I watched as the nurse came in and talked to my aunt in terminology that she did not understand. Of course, the nurse has multiple patients to tend to and hundreds of tasks throughout the shift. So, the nurse was quick with my aunt, in and out in no time. After the nurse had left, my aunt turned to me and asked: “What did he say?” As a nurse, I was grateful that I was there and able to explain things. And it made me realize that most patients retain very little of what they hear. One way we can do better at interacting with upset patients is by speaking to them in lay terms. We need to remove the medical jargon and realize that confusion can be a cause for angry feelings.

What’s worked for you? How have you handled an angry patient? Be sure to Tweet me @ElizabethScala and let me know what you think! Thanks for reading; enjoy the day.

Elizabeth Scala

Keynote speaker and bestselling author, Elizabeth Scala MSN/MBA, RN, partners with hospitals, nursing schools, and nurse associations to transform the field of nursing from the inside out. As the host of the Nurse’s Week ‘Art of Nursing’ program, Elizabeth guides nurses and nursing students to a change in perspective, helping them make the inner shift needed to better maneuver the sometimes challenging realities of being a caregiver.Elizabeth received her dual master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is also a certified coach and Reiki Master Teacher. Elizabeth lives in Maryland with her supportive husband and a playful pit bull.