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How to Help Patients Who are Angry

How to Help Patients Who are Angry

How to Help Patients Who are Angry

June 19 2018

Tips to Defuse a Tense Situation

Even the most calm of people can reach a boiling point when their health, independence and mobility are threatened by an illness. Pain and fear lead to increased levels of frustration, anxiety and stress and could result in anger. But with some simple actions, you can get control of the situation and defuse tension.

Be Prepared

Working in the healthcare field means that you will be dealing primarily with people who don’t feel well. And while you may have an entire day filled with pleasant and polite patients, having to deal with angry patients is a reality of the profession.

  • Prepare for angry patients at the start of your shift by remaining calm.
  • Remember that your own stress and frustration can exacerbate the situation

Look for the Signs

There are signals you can spot that indicate a patient’s emotional state is deteriorating that will help you become aware of the rising tension. By being able to spot these signs, you’ll be able to get control of the situation before it gets out of hand.

  • Look for changes in body language, such as a tightened jaw, clenched fists, tense posture, fidgeting or any other significant change from a patient’s previous behavior.
  • Pay attention to verbal cues, including tone of voice. Is the patient’s voice raised? Is the patient demanding excessive attention?

First Steps to Take

Once you detect these warning signs, you will need to act fast to help the patient vent their feelings in a more productive manner.

  • Start by spending extra time with the patient. Don’t ignore the patient’s complaints and actively listen to them.
  • Try going over the care plan with the patient to make sure they are thoroughly family with it and the rationale behind it. Review the care received so far, any progress made and how long recovery should take, if applicable.

Show Empathy

Some patients may not be soothed by extra attention and may become belligerent, demanding answers to loaded questions such as, “Why isn’t my treatment working?”

  • Answer all questions calmly and don’t become defensive, remembering to treat the patient with respect.
  • If the patient is uncooperative, try to identify the underlying reason. For example, if a patient is upset about replacing one physical therapy exercise for another, he or she may really be nervous about an upcoming procedure or test result. Listen to the patient and give reassurance that you take his or her concerns seriously. Empathize with the patient, for example by saying, “I understand how upsetting this must be for you.”
  • Be sure to explain the consequences of the patient’s refusal, for example, an unwillingness to cooperate with a physical therapy exercise might delay the patient’s recovery.
  • If the patient’s anger is over an administrative issue, such as having to wait too long to see a particular health care provider, speak to the appropriate person about scheduling to resolve the wait time issue.

Watch your Language

If your emotions can exacerbate a tense situation, your words will too.

  • Use personal language, by saying, “I” instead of “you” which comes across accusingly.
  • Ask open-ended questions that give the patient more opportunities to express themselves and, perhaps, reveal their real problem.

Keep Your Cool

This is one of the most important things you can do during a tense situation. Even if a patient is angry enough to verbally abuse you, remain calm and professional.

  • Keep some distance between you and the patient if he or she is being verbally abusive. Wait to respond until the verbal barrage is over. When it is, speak softly and call the patient by name.
  • If a patient becomes irrational, saying things such as “I’m going to sue,” he or she is likely attempting to intimidate you. Trying to justify the situation or defend your actions will only make the situation worse. Instead, use active listening. Paraphrase back to the patient what he or she has said to you, while at the same time, identifying the real feelings behind the words such as fear or helplessness.
  • Continue to treat the patient with respect, show accepting body language by letting your arms hang loosely at your sides. Do not show defensive poses, such as crossing your arms or standing with your hands on your hips.
  • If the patient “blows up” and is no longer listening to you, keep calm and do not let the patient’s anger manipulate you. Never get angry yourself. Do not try to set limits by saying, “calm down” or “stop yelling.”   Do maintain eye contact with the patient and just listen. Try to understand the event that caused the outburst.
  • When the patient has quieted down, let the patient know you understand. Acknowledge his or her feelings and match your words to the patient’s level of anger; express regret about the situation. Try to find a point of agreement, perhaps even acknowledge that the patient’s complaint has validity.
  • Ask the patient what he or she would suggest as a solution to the problem. Uses phrases such as “Can you tell me what you need? Or “Do you have some suggestions on ways to solve this problem?” Bring the conversation to an end by attempting to reach an acceptable arrangement. Offer the patient options.

Realize You Might Not be Able to Appease the Patient

Sometimes, no matter how well you handle the situation, a patient may continue in a rage. That’s okay as long as you have done your job well.

Dealing with Physical Threats

If the patient threatens you physically or you fear for your own safety, it is best to leave.

  • Remove yourself from the situation and once outside, make the appropriate calls to notify your higher ups.

Document It

No matter how far the situation escalates, it is important to document what happened, including your attempts to defuse the tension as well as the patient’s complaints and your attempts resolve them.


Dealing with an angry patient who is upset or fearful about their health will always be a challenge. But with some finesse in defusing the situation and managing anger, the focus can remain on the patient’s care.

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