Doctor Patient Relations: How to Handle an Emotional Patient

Put yourself in the patient’s shoes to correct doctor patient problems

In this edition, Dr. Saketh Guntupalli discusses the healthy approach to deal with the concerns of emotionally distressed patients.

Video transcript

One of the most difficult situations that we deal with in medicine is dealing with an emotionally charged or difficult patient. We see this kind of doctor patient issue happen all day, every day and in all of our practices, whether we’re working in the emergency room or in the clinic or in the operating room. Approaching this in a way that is healthy and in which both sides feel like their concerns are being addressed is incredibly important.

The physician sets the example for doctor patient relationships

The first thing to remember is that as the physician, you set the example. We set the example for our interaction with patients. We set the example for our trainees. We set an example for society as a whole. And we must hold ourselves to the highest of standards when interacting with situations that really may aggravate us.

The best way to do that is to take a step outside of the situation and try to look at it from the patient’s perspective first. For example, if a patient is very upset because they have been waiting a long time in the waiting room, it’s important to, first in your mind, take yourself out of that situation and think how you would feel if you had been waiting for an hour or two hours. It does not take very long to do that. And I think that really helps to diffuse what could end up being a volatile situation.

Maintain a calm tone of voice for smooth doctor patient interaction

The second thing that is incredibly important in these situations is to talk with a very calm tone. It is very easy and is very natural for us to raise our voice and to get agitated and let our own blood pressure get up. But that does not help the situation at all. Again, as a physician, you have the responsibility to set the example, and I think that it’s important to really maintain a calm tone of voice, address the issue, explain how you’ll rectify the issue or explain why the issue occurred, and then proceed from there to find a solution.

Conduct emotionally-charged conversations in an open space

The third thing that I think is incredibly important is to have these interactions in an open space rather than in the closed room. That might seem a little bit counterintuitive, but the reason that it’s important is that it creates the sense in that room that the patient is not being closed off. It’s important for patients to feel that they are in a safe space where they can vent their issues. That usually diffuses the situation by 50%.

The other reason that it is incredibly important is that it allows both parties a means to exit the situation if things are getting even more hostile or if somebody just needs to take a break. It is incredibly important to let people’s emotions calm down before there is a very acute interaction and oftentimes that may happen in the hospital setting.

If you go into a patient’s room in the hospital and they are clearly very agitated or the family is very agitated, the best thing to do in that situation is to say, “ Everyone is very charged up. It’s best for us to just stay away from each other for about 10 minutes and then, come in and together try to find a solution.”