After I finished my residency in EM and started working as an attending physician, I realized I had a problem. I believe a lot of you have the same problem. Some of our patients are so angry, oppositional, and non-compliant that we get angry and frustrated. We become cynical as we start to think, “nothing I do can help this person.” We start to feel exhausted and burned out. I researched the problem from the side of the patients and the physician. I read the literature. I wrote a lecture about it in which I suggested some solutions to our residents in training. I expanded that lecture into a book that has just been published by the American Association for Physician Leadership.
You don’t have to change your job and you don’t have to leave the profession that you worked so hard to get into. You actually have to change the way that you think about your difficult patients. It sounds like wishful thinking, I know, but you can do it.
All of us have adopted a very negative attitude towards our patients. It’s not really our fault because human doctors naturally have a very suspicious and skeptical nature. Our cavemen ancestors had to be on the lookout about lions and bears lurking outside their caves. We are taught to be on the lookout for danger in the form of urgent Zebra diagnoses and dramatic deceptions. On top of all that, we hear our senior residents and attendings loosely tossing about derogatory names for our patients like gomers or dirtballs. Everyone in the nurses’ stations and the breakrooms mocks their patients and tells stories to lighten the mood.
If our patients do not act the way we expect them to or comply with the treatment plan, they are labeled as “difficult” patients. Once you believe a person is difficult, given the concept of confirmation bias, you will naturally look for (and find) evidence that supports that belief. Of course, we find ourselves avoiding difficult patients, cutting off their conversations, and quickly discharging those people we cannot stand.
Our patients go through some very predictable fears and responses to illness and injury. In turn, medical students and residents also think and respond with some thought distortions and misunderstandings about their patients and themselves. Armed with awareness and familiarity with the typical patterns, we learn more about what to expect. We anticipate when we will get push-back and we are better prepared to act calmly and confidently.
Additionally, we can get curious and ask better questions during those challenging interactions. What else is true about that grumpy old man? Is he someone’s father or grandfather? Could some of the patient’s behavior be a symptom of his disease? If we remember that, don’t those facts make the patient’s actions a lot more understandable? Is there another way to approach a problem to which you see only one solution? Can you reach some collaborative plan that satisfies both the patient and you?
With intention and practice, you can guide yourself towards better thoughts. More optimistic thoughts lead to more positive feelings which lead to more effective actions and improved results. In addition, it just feels better as a professional to think, feel, and act with more kindness and empathy. What you think really matters and with a little guidance and repetition, you can find that you have no more difficult patients.
Joan Naidorf is an emergency physician and author of Changing How We Think about Difficult Patients: A Guide for Physicians and Healthcare Professionals.
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