Every healthcare professional knows that they will someday have to deal with an angry patient.  Sometimes the anger is directed at them and sometimes it’s more about the situation. Whatever the reason, the most important response is not to escalate the situation. 

There are many possible causes for the anger, from being in pain or just being worried. They may be feeling ignored or unfairly treated, or believe they’ve been disrespected. There could also be other reasons – such as a very long time in the waiting room or having to deal with uncomfortable conditions.

Here are basic strategies to help ease an angry patient’s distress:

  • Appear calm, respectful, self-controlled and confident. Don’t take the patient’s comments personally.
  • Approach in a warm, friendly manner. Avoid confrontational body language (e.g. crossed arms, standing too close).
  • Be sparing with the use of touch – as touch can be so easily misconstrued or feel threatening.  
  • Find out what the problem is from the patient’s point of view.
  • Use active listening, and show you are listening, e.g. by nodding. Don’t interrupt, and give the patient time to clarify their thoughts.
  • Ask reflective questions, putting their statements in your own words to clarify your understanding – e.g. You need to see a GP as soon as possible, is that correct? 
  • Use a series of ‘yes’ questions – it’s hard to remain angry with logical questions.
  • Speak softly and clearly, using simple language without ‘talking down’ to the patient.
  • Give clear messages showing that you want to help and you understand their point of view.
  • Don’t try to provide solutions until the patient has calmed down, so they can listen and be more rational.
  • Give control to the patient, e.g. What I would like to do/ discuss/consider now is XYZ, is that alright with you? Ask the patient to list possible solutions.
  • Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.
  • Be considerate, e.g. offer them a glass of water

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Always Protect Your Staff

If these strategies do not work, staff safety is always a priority, not least because of Australian Work Health and Safety laws. It’s also useful to establish a practice policy which covers:

  • what to do if anger escalates into violence
  • how to end the relationship with the patient if necessary
  • post-incident response, including debriefing and support for staff
  • how to set boundaries and prevent future episodes from the same patient

Tego can help you protect your Practice

We are Australian medical indemnity insurance providers and cover your practice with medical indemnity insurance, medical malpractice insurance, doctors indemnity insurance, gp medical indemnity insurance, medical practice insurance, and more. If you are a health practitioner with Tego, we offer 24/7 medico-legal advice and support in regards to what you need to know about how to protect your practice against angry patients.

This publication is general in nature and is not comprehensive or constitutes legal or medical advice. You should seek legal, medical or other professional advice before relying on any content, and practice proper clinical decision making with regard to individual circumstances. Persons implementing any recommendations contained in this publication must exercise their own independent skill or judgment or seek appropriate professional advice relevant to their own particular practice. Compliance with any recommendations will not in any way guarantee discharge of the duty of care owed to patients and others coming into contact with the health professional or practice. Tego Insurance Pty Ltd is not responsible to you or anyone else for any loss suffered in connection with the use of this information. All content on this page has been written in a generic way, and has not been presented with any knowledge of your personal objectives or financial needs.