Managing difficult patients

Managing difficult patients

Nursing is the most rewarding job, but it is also the most demanding job. There will be patients that are easy to deal with, but there are going to be ones that are extremely difficult. The key is not to take it personally and focus on understanding the roots of their behaviour and figure out a response that will protect you both.

When you decide to pursue a nursing career, you come to terms the long nights, exhausting shifts, and the heartbreak of losing a patient, but you probably didn’t expect not getting along with your patients. You don’t always think about clashing with your patients when you entered the profession because you wanted to care for them.

When people are ill or going through something tough, they tend to lash out at those that are helping them. It can be a natural way for them to deal with a situation that’s out of their control. The fact of the matter is that nursing means caring - even when it’s hard.

However, just because someone is ill or going through a difficult time does not give them an excuse to be rude, belittling or demanding. You deserve respect and need to command it in certain situations.

Understanding your patients’ perspective

Practice active and empathetic listening.

Ask questions to understand your patients and gain perspective on their situation and what they’re feeling. Let them know how you feel without passing judgment. This will reassure your patients that they’re being accepted, heard, and understood.

Stay calm

When something bad happens and a patient lashes out, it is your responsibility to realise that they’re not directly upset at. You must maintain your composure because you are a professional and the person who the patient goes to for answers. Body language speaks volumes, so remaining calm will help you defuse the situation. Take a deep breath, compose yourself and try to be understanding.

Pay attention

Most of the time, patients just want your acknowledgement. You can often prevent difficult situations before they happen just by being observant.

Don’t accept abuse

Any form of abuse is not acceptable- regardless of situations of conflict. It is important not to establish habits where you are accepting abusive behaviour. The line between a patient who is abrasive and abusive will depend on your work environment. Don’t hesitate to call your supervisor or hospital security if a patient is getting out of line.

Show that you care

Patients deserve the best care you’re able to provide—even the difficult ones. Make it your focus to deliver excellent, positive care to all your patients. Set aside your frustration and do what you can to meet their needs.

Learn to prioritize

Always remember your role to provide quality care and maintain a sense of what’s important. You need to view your patients’ needs objectively and prioritize. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you are neglecting a patient in need because you feel pressured into helping a difficult patient first.

Educate your patients

Empower your patients to take charge of their health and educate them about their condition. Equipping them with resources they need to make informed decisions about their lives and their care, can be a great benefit in reducing negative behaviours.

Don’t take it personally

After dealing with a difficult patient, don’t let it ruin your day by dwelling on every detail. Take a few moments for yourself, recoup and move forward.


Managing difficult patients comes with the territory of your nursing career. You want to be prepared as you enter the workforce to appropriately deal with situations and provide the care you are required to give.