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A Nurse’s Guide on How to Deal with Angry Patients or Families

As front liners in dealing with patients and families, nurses are often the recipient of a patient’s or family’s frustration. Whether experiencing a problem or voicing a complaint, nurses are usually the person first approached. Managing difficult patients and families on top of your routine tasks can be stressful. When it becomes a reason for not pursuing treatment, it also becomes bad for the patient. Here are some tips on how you can handle these circumstances:


Recognize the signs of distress

Before a patient or family gets angry, recognize the signs that they are starting to get distressed or irritated. Subtle signs include fidgeting, pacing around the area, looking at their watches constantly, crossed arms, or answering with short monosyllabic phrases. Once you see these signs, attempt to approach the person, lighten the mood, or follow up their concern immediately. It is best to avoid any confrontation by being sensitive to your surroundings and proactive to the patient’s needs.

Understand the cause

But if ever the patient or family does begin to blow up, understand what he or she is angry about. Patients and families rarely get angry for any reason. Understand that the patient feels sick, is in pain, or is wasting precious time. Learn to segregate the manner in which the person is saying with the content of his or her message. Understand the root cause of the problem and think if it is something that you have control over and can do something about.


Communicate with the patient or family in mind

The first statement you say should be a validation of the patient’s or family’s feelings. Statements like “I understand that...” shows that you know what the person is angry about. Then, apologize for any inconvenience that may be caused - regardless if it is intentional or if it is within your control. Never argue with them. You are part of the medical team and facility, so the gaps of others are also your failures. Also, don’t make defensive responses nor put blame on a person because all your side comments become a reflection of your team or medical facility. Make sure to check your body language that you are relaying sincerity and openness.


Let them vent or cool down

Sometimes when patients or families get frustrated, there is no other way to release tension aside from getting angry at the staff. It is easy to get angry back, but don’t take the anger personally. Not unless it is causing disruption to you or the facility, let them vent their frustrations as their way of coping with the situation. If you’re trying to give a medication, don’t invade their personal space during this time. Allow them to process their feelings first before proceeding with your action.


Try to find a solution

If it is something within your control, act on it immediately. The family might be angry because they remain clueless about the status of the patient, so give them an update. They might be following up on materials needed, so provide it to them. But if it isn’t within your control, then try to do something to follow up or to give them a reasonable time line. Always give realistic promises. If there really are 10 more patients waiting to have their x-ray taken, then tell the patient honestly that he or she may have to wait for another hour. Offer them water or a reading material while they are waiting. But sometimes, the solution is to provide reasonable delay. So for an uncooperative patient you need to give medications to, tell them you will come back within 15 minutes when they’ve cooled down.

Keep calm

Never engage an angry patient or family member. If you empathize with what they are going through, it will be easier to not take their actions personally and get on with your duties. But if someone is really pushing your buttons, try to calm yourself down before you do or say something that you will regret. Try the 10-count rule where in you count to ten before you talk to give you ample time to screen what you will say and avoid unnecessary top of the head comebacks.


Forward to your supervisor or the attending physician

But if all else fails, and if the complaint is outside your realm of control, do not hesitate to forward the patient or family to your supervisor or the attending physician. Remember that you are part of a team and that you don’t have to bear all the burden and wrath by yourself. Your supervisor might also be in a better position to do something to address the complaints. The attending physician might also be in a better position to act on the concerns of the patient or family.