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From time to time, all physicians encounter patients whose behavior evokes negative emotions. In 1978, Groves detailed four types of patients — “dependent clingers, entitled demanders, manipulative help-rejecters and self-destructive deniers” — that even the most seasoned physicians dread, and provided suggestions for managing interactions with them. The topic was revisited and updated in 2006 by Strous et al.
This article further updates the topic of managing challenging patients to reflect the current practice climate. We provide a more modern view of challenging patients and provide guidance on handling them.
A 60-year-old lawyer is admitted to the hospital for evaluation of abdominal pain. His physician recommends placing a nasogastric tube to provide nutrition while the evaluation is completed. His wife, a former nurse practitioner, insists that a nasogastric tube would be too dangerous and demands that he be allowed to eat instead. The couple declares the primary internal medicine physician incompetent, does not want any residents to be involved in his care, and antagonizes the nurses with constant demands. Soon, the entire team avoids the patient’s room.
People with demanding behavior often have a hostile and confrontational manner. They may use medical jargon and appear to believe that they know more than their healthcare team. Many demand to know why they have not been offered a particular test, diagnosis or treatment, especially if they or a family member has a healthcare background. Such patients appear to feel that they are being treated incorrectly and leave us feeling vulnerable.
Understanding the motivation for the behavior can help a physician to empathize with the demanding patient. Although it may seem that the demanding patient is trying to intimidate the physician, the goal is usually the same: to find the best possible treatment. Anger and hostility are often motivated by fear and a sense of losing control.
Ironically, this maladaptive coping style may alienate the very people who can help the patient. Hostile behavior evokes defensiveness and resentment in others. A power struggle may ensue: as the patient makes more unreasonable demands and threats, the physician reacts by asserting his or her views in an attempt to maintain control. Or the physician and the rest of the healthcare team may simply avoid the patient as much as possible.
The best strategy is often to steer the encounter away from a power struggle by legitimizing the patient’s feeling of entitlement to the best possible treatment. Take a collaborative stance with the patient, with the common goal of finding and implementing the most effective and lowest-risk diagnostic and treatment plan. Empathy and exploration of the patient’s concerns are always in order.
Physicians can try several strategies to improve interactions with demanding patients and caregivers:
Be consistent. All members of the healthcare team, including nurses and specialists, should convey consistent messages regarding diagnostic testing and treatment plans.
Don’t play the game. Demanding patients often complain about being mistreated by other healthcare providers. When confronted with such complaints, acknowledge the patient’s feelings while refraining from blaming or criticizing other members of the healthcare team.
Clarify expectations. Clarifying expectations from the initial patient encounter can prevent conflicts later. Support a patient who must accept a diagnosis of a terminal illness, and then when appropriate, discuss goals moving forward. Collaboration within the framework of reasonable expectations is key.
For our case, the physician could say, “We want to work with you together as a team. We will work hard to address your concerns, but our nurses must have a safe environment in which to help you.” Such a statement highlights shared goals and expression of concern without judgment. The next step is to clarify expectations by describing the hospital routine and how decisions are made.
Offer choices. Offering choices whenever possible can help a demanding patient feel more in control. Rather than dismiss a patient’s ideas, explore the alternatives. While effective patient communication is preferable to repeated referrals to specialists, judicious referral can engender trust in the physician’s competence if a diagnosis is not forthcoming.
Admit failings. Although not easy, admitting to and apologizing for things that have gone wrong can help to calm a demanding patient and even reduce the likelihood of a lawsuit. The physician should not convey defensiveness and instead should acknowledge the limitations of the healthcare system.
Legitimize concerns—to an extent. Legitimizing a demanding patient’s concerns is important, but never be bullied into taking actions that create unnecessary risk. Upsetting a demanding patient is better than ordering tests or providing treatments that are potentially harmful. Good physician-patient communication can go a long way toward preventing adverse outcomes.
Dr. Schuermeyer is Director of Psycho-Oncology, Department of Psychiatry and Psychology. Dr. Falcone is staff in the Epilepsy Center, Department of Psychiatry and Psychology. Dr. Franco is staff in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology.
This abridged article originally appeared in Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine and can be read in full here.