Difficult Patient or Difficult Relationship?

Difficult patient-clinician relationships are not uncommon. So, is it the people that are difficult or the relationship that is difficult?

In your dental practice it can be easy to recognize difficult patients. These patients may make you feel anxious or experience dread. They could even contribute to burnout or negatively affect the compassion and empathy that you show.

According to the article Difficult Patient Encounters, a difficult patient-clinician relationship occurs in approximately 15% of adult patient encounters. The article goes on to explain that these encounters can occur when physicians see patients with complex, chronic medical conditions that are influenced or exacerbated by social factors.

So, is it the people that are difficult or the relationship that is difficult?

Difficult situations can be caused by many factors. Therefore, it is important that each situation be viewed objectively in an effort to understand what is causing the issue. Could it be the result of a misalignment of expectations, communications, or a literacy issue? 

Difficult situations can also sometimes come from boundaries being or not being set, verbally or nonverbally. 

Having an open and honest conversation may help each party share their frustration and discuss ways to improve the situation. 

How can you deal with a difficult doctor-patient relationship? 

Here are some strategies to help defuse a difficult patient relationship: 

  • Acknowledge that the situation exists
  • Recognize the patient’s priorities
  • Express empathy
  • Ask open ended questions to hear the patient’s perspective
  • Practice reflective listening (seeking to understand first, then be understood)
  • Set boundaries

As always, be sure to thoroughly document your patient conversations.

For further reading on this topic, including suggestions from other dental professionals, take a look at the article Meeting the Needs of Difficult Dental Patients.

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