Conference Coverage

Learn to anticipate, resolve difficult interactions with patients



Every physician encounters difficult or challenging patients during their career, but learning how to anticipate and handle these interactions is not something taught in medical school or residency, according to Donald W. Black, MD, MS.

"Every doctor I know has had challenging interactions" [with patients], said Dr. Donald W. Black professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. Courtesy Dr. Donald Black

Dr. Donald W. Black

Difficult or challenging encounters with patients are not only unavoidable, they should be expected, Dr. Black said in a virtual meeting presented by Current Psychiatry and the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists.

“Every doctor I know has had challenging interactions,” he said. About 15% of encounters were deemed “difficult” in a prospective study of patients by Jeffrey L. Jackson, MD, MPH, and Kurt Kroenke, MD. A depressive or anxiety disorder was present in 29% of patients, with 11% experiencing two or more disorders. Major depression was present in 8.4%, other depressive disorders in 17.4%, panic disorder in 1.4%, and other anxiety disorders in 14.2% of patients. Dr. Jackson and Dr. Kroenke found that difficult patients demonstrated disrespect and anger, made threats, and locked themselves in rooms (Arch Intern Med. 1999 May 24;159[10]:1069-75). “Rest assured, you are not the only psychiatrist to face this type of issue,” Dr. Black said at the meeting, presented by Global Academy for Medical Education.

Common scenarios can include patients who want certain tests performed after researching symptoms online, threats of legal or social media action after feeling like they are not being listened to, a demand for a second opinion after not agreeing with a physician’s diagnosis, mistrust of doctors after presenting with symptoms and not being diagnosed, patients who focus on negative outcomes, and those who do not comply with treatment. These patients can often appear angry, defensive, frightened or resistant, or manipulative; may provide vague or exaggerated symptoms; or may inappropriately rely on hospital or clinic staff for emotional and physical support.

To complicate matters, the patients’ condition also might contribute to difficult interactions, such as in patients who have conditions like chronic pain or fibromyalgia.

“These often contribute because patients never feel that their problems are being appropriately addressed,” said Dr. Black, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Patients with psychiatric disorders can also present unique challenges that may result in difficult encounters. Patients with anxiety might not be able to be reassured by their doctor, for example, or patients with eating disorders might refuse treatment recommendations, he said.

Difficult encounters can lead to physicians feeling angry, upset, stressed, disrespected, abused, or fearful. But “it’s not just about the patient,” Dr. Black said. Physicians can become angry or defensive because of burnout, stress, or frustration, which can lead to them snapping at patients. Physicians are also overworked, sleep-deprived, and busier than they’d like to be, he added. Personal problems can contribute, and a physician’s belief system can cause a bad interaction with a patient. If physicians “label” one of their patients, that might end up becoming a “self-fulfilling prophecy” for that patient, Dr. Black said. Poor communication, such as not conveying bad news appropriately or with empathy, seeing a patient but never making eye contact, and using medical jargon that could be confusing to the patient, also can contribute to a challenging encounter, he added.

Situational issues also might create a bad experience for the patient. For example, a patient might find it hard to make an appointment, or the clinic might be busy or have a lack of privacy or encounter administrative issues. For patients who do not speak English as their native language, not having access to an interpreter can lead to frustration on the part of both the physician and the patient. “Bad interactions are not good for patient care,” Dr. Black said.

The key to resolving these issues is to focus on the goal, Dr. Black said. “We all want the same thing. We want to help the patient get better; we want to keep patients healthy; we want to keep them happy; we want to be fulfilled; [and] we want to manage our time and make a living – and meet our professional expectations.”

Begin by recognizing the difficult situation and assessing how the patient, the environment, or you might be contributing to the problem. “You have to step back and say what’s going on with this, and what are the factors that are combining to create this situation,” Dr. Black said. It is important to be calm and professional and not argue or talk over the patient. The goal is to work with the patient to find a solution.

One technique is to verbalize the problem without blaming the patient, the physician, or the environment (“We both have very different views about how your symptoms should be investigated, and that’s causing some difficulty between us. Do you agree?”).

There also might be alternative explanations for a patient’s behavior. For example, anger could be misdirected at a physician because of anxiety surrounding an unrelated event. In this case, it is important to listen to the patient and empathize, which will help the patient feel supported and build a rapport that can aid in resolving the problem encounter, Dr. Black said. Finding common ground when patients and physicians have different ideas on treatment or diagnosis is another way to help resolve a difficult encounter.

However, setting boundaries also is important, he noted. If, after remediation or if patients demonstrate signs of threatening or abusive behavior, initiate sexual advances, refuse to follow a treatment plan, fail to pay their bills, or are potentially putting themselves in harm’s way through noncompliance, a physician might consider terminating the relationship. Terminating the patient relationship should be done after attempting to work with the patient through a case manager and team members, and clearly advising a patient about behavior that could lead to termination of the patient-provider relationship. “If the problem is irremediable, notify the patient in writing and allow time for the patient to find another doctor,” Dr. Black said.

Global Academy and this news organization are owned by the same parent company. Dr. Black reported that he is a consultant for Otsuka and receives royalties from American Psychiatric Publishing, Oxford University Press, and UpToDate. In addition, he receives funding from Nellie Ball Trust, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Aging, and the National Center for Responsible Gaming.

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