Risk Management Tools & Resources


The Challenge of Difficult Patients: Risk Management Strategies for Handling Inappropriate Patient Behaviors


Difficult patients represent one of the most challenging situations that doctors and other healthcare professionals encounter. Dealing with these patients can be emotionally and mentally draining — as well as increasingly frustrating — for practitioners and their staff members.

Additionally, inappropriate patient behaviors can compromise the provider-patient relationship, and patients might be at increased risk for misdiagnosis and more likely to have negative outcomes.1 Difficult patients also might be more likely to file a lawsuit as a result of perceived negative encounters.

The types of behaviors that difficult patients exhibit can vary widely. For example, these patients and/or their family members might:

  • Have unrealistic expectations or demands
  • Have a laundry list of clinical complaints with no clear basis
  • Have a history of doctor shopping and dissatisfaction with care
  • Overutilize healthcare services
  • Display needy or manipulative tendencies (e.g., threats of complaints or lawsuits)
  • Exhibit rude, unpleasant, threatening, or aggressive behaviors that might potentially escalate over time into violence

Various factors can contribute to these types of patient behaviors, such as a complex medical history, psychiatric disorders, drug or alcohol abuse, frustration with the complexity of the healthcare system, social/personal issues, and cultural factors.

Moreover, healthcare providers’ attitudes and behaviors — whether in reaction to the patient’s behavior or as inherent characteristics — can complicate these situations. Feelings of anger, defensiveness, fatigue, and stress might provide the catalyst for adversarial interactions between provider and patient.

Although caring for difficult patients can be burdensome, healthcare practitioners can implement risk strategies to help manage these patients. First, practitioners should quickly assess whether the disruptive behavior could potentially escalate to a violent situation. This assessment should include consideration of whether substance abuse, an acute physical condition, or mental illness might be the cause of the difficult behavior.

Staff, patient, and visitor safety should be the primary concern if a patient is potentially violent to self or others. Every healthcare facility should have an established security protocol, with verbal or physical triggers that initiate a call for law enforcement support. Further, organizational policies should offer preparation and training to help staff deal with these situations and de-escalate aggressive patient behaviors.

If a patient is not violent, the provider should tell the patient his/her behavior is unacceptable and must stop before care can continue. The provider can potentially avoid confrontation by approaching this conversation from the standpoint of prioritizing quality care and making the patient aware of his/her vital role as a member of the care team.

Other strategies that can help address difficult behavior include:

  • Working to clarify expectations (e.g., through the provision of a patient brochure that explains the organization's policies, procedures, and patient responsibilities)
  • Using a patient agreement to reinforce expectations
  • Addressing cultural or health literacy issues that might manifest as inappropriate behaviors because patients are confused, frustrated, or feel disrespected
  • Implementing a complaint process to effectively and consistently manage patient complaints

In some cases, a solution might not be possible. As long as discrimination laws are not broken and the patient is not abandoned, a practitioner might decide it is in his/her best interest to terminate the provider–patient relationship with a difficult patient. To learn more about this process, see MedPro's Terminating a Provider–Patient Relationship guideline.


1 Schmidt, H. G., van Gog, T., Schuit, S. C. E., Van den Berge, K., Van Daele, P. L. A., Bueving, H., . . . Mamede, S. (2016, March). Do patients’ disruptive behaviours influence the accuracy of a doctor's diagnosis? A randomised experiment. BMJ Quality & Safety. Retrieved from http://qualitysafety.bmj.com/content/early/2016/02/09/bmjqs-2015-004109

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