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5 Strategies for Setting Boundaries With Angry Patients

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5 Strategies for Setting Boundaries With Angry Patients

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Angry patient

Every medical practice has seen its share of angry patients, and their behavior can often be scary. If you see a patient whose anger appears to be bubbling over, you must know how to set boundaries with them to protect yourself, your other patients and your staff members.

Check out five essential tips that can help you draw a line in the sand with every angry patient you see, leading to a more civilized waiting room.

1. Give the Patient Reasonable Limits

When you’re setting boundaries with patients, you should give them a reasonable limit and then if they don’t meet it, you’ll know to escalate the situation to the next level.

For example, if a patient is angrily walking toward you, you might say “That tile on the floor is the line you may not cross. If you cross that line, I’m calling the police.” That would be a reasonable limit that the patient will understand and that you can clearly measure.

An unreasonable limit, on the other hand, would be to say, “If you get any more angry, I’m calling the police!” It’s difficult to measure an “angrier” patient unless you give them a reasonable, measurable limit and then follow through if they don’t obey it.

2. Offer Choices and Consequences

Without giving the patient choices and consequences, they won’t be inspired to obey the limits you set above. Instead of simply saying “Do you want to see Dr. Smith or not?” you might instead say “If you reach over my desk again, I’m going to cancel your appointment with Dr. Smith for today. Would you like to keep your appointment and wait quietly in the waiting room, or reschedule for another day?”

Because you’ve offered the patient two simple choices—along with consequences for what will happen if they reach over the desk again—they’re more likely to choose one or the other and comply.

3. Be Clear, Speak Simply

It can be tempting to raise your voice if the patient does and to have your anger meet their level, but avoid that temptation at all costs. Speak clearly and simply, using words they’ll understand are direct but without speaking too quickly. Your goal is to ensure the patient understands what you’re saying and which limits you’re setting.

If they’re able to say they didn’t understand you because you were yelling, then you won’t be able to point out the limits you set and the consequences they’ll face for disobeying those limits.

4. Decide What’s Negotiable

Your practice should have a policy in writing that outlines which types of behaviors are negotiable and which are set in stone. For instance, maybe at your practice you see a lot of patients with dementia who use foul language and so you’re willing to accept the occasional curse word in your waiting room. But a pediatric practice might have a blanket policy barring parents and patients from using profanity.

Once you have your list of negotiable items written down, train the staff on them so everyone knows what’s negotiable and what isn’t.

5. Recognize When Further Measures Are Required

Unfortunately, not every attempt at de-escalation works. If your patients push the boundaries you’ve set, it’s important to escalate the situation to the next level. In some cases, this may mean calling the police, locking yourself in another room, or evacuating the waiting room completely. Ensure that you have your escalation strategies in writing so the staff knows when to put a plan into motion.

Want more proven strategies that can help your entire practice skillfully deal with angry patients? Expert Jonathan Westall, FACHE, is here to help! During his 60-minute online training session, Jonathan will give you the tips you need to calm even the most upset patients. Register for “Defuse Angry/Aggressive Patients” today!

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