Strategies for Dealing with Difficult People

For most medical assistants, working with and helping people is the most rewarding part of the job. However, working with people can also be the most challenging part of the job. Because of pain or illness, patients do not always behave at their best. They may be upset with their lowered quality of life or feeling frustrated and angry over their lack of improvement. They sometimes seem to have unrealistic expectations of what the physician and medical science are able to offer. They may be feeling frightened, vulnerable, angry, or confused. As a result, patient behavior can sometimes be unpredictable and unpleasant.During such times, a medical assistant can become a convenient target and can find it challenging to maintain her professional demeanor. However, it is especially during such times that her degree of professionalism becomes apparent.To help during such times, a medical assistant can employ several strategies, including:

Focusing on the Patient

It is not easy to avoid taking personal offense at criticism or other negative comments from a patient. However, the medical assistant must remind herself to keep her focus on the patient’s needs, rather than on herself. By doing so, she is less likely to feel personally upset or offended by the patient’s words or behaviors. In addition, the medical assistant who tries to treat others as she would want to be treated maintains the ability to empathize with her patients. This empathy makes her less likely to react in anger and more likely to respond with compassion.

Acknowledging the Patient

All people like to feel acknowledged, and no one likes to be treated as if they were a number or an object. If patients believe they are being treated as an object rather than a person, they will be offended, angry, and frustrated. A medical assistant may be extremely busy dealing with multiple patients, ringing telephones, physicians, coworkers, and numerous other demands. However, she must never fall into the habit of viewing patients as an inconvenience. Patient care is at the heart of the profession of medical assisting. Regardless of how busy a medical assistant is, it takes no more time to look a patient in the eyes, speak in a kind voice, and smile than it does to deal with that patient in a harried, distracted manner.

Validating the Patient’s Feelings

When a patient feels upset, they do not want someone to argue with them or trivialize her feelings. Such treatment will simply further upset the patient. On the other hand, if the medical assistant responds with a calm voice and validates the patient’s feelings in a kind, empathetic manner, her response will most likely have a soothing effect that deescalates the situation. However, it can be difficult for a medical assistant to validate a patient’s feelings without implying agreement with the patient’s statement. For example, a patient complains to the medical assistant, saying, “I can’t believe that I wasted $65 on a worthless medication. You people are incompetent!” The medical assistant can simply validate the patient’s feelings by saying, “You are feeling concerned that the medication was ineffective.” Then, she can offer a temporary solution by saying, “Since you are not feeling better, you should probably speak with the physician.”

Using “I” Language

Communication with others is vital in reaching agreements, resolving conflicts, and creating a positive work environment. However, when people’s emotions rise and tempers flare, their efforts at communication may quickly deteriorate into accusations and arguments. In order to avoid such a situation, people should try to plan such conversations for a time when the persons involved are not feeling angry or upset. They should also remind themselves that the goal is to achieve a positive resolution for everyone.When attempting to address a conflict or disagreement, the medical assistant who uses “I” language, rather than “you” language, can help ensure a successful conversation that does not make the other persons involved feel as though they must defend themselves. For example, the medical assistant who is  feeling annoyed with her coworker for always returning from lunch late might yell at her as she comes in the door, “You are always late and messing up our schedule, and I’ve had it!” Doing so will probably put her coworker on the defense and start an argument. A better approach would be to wait until feelings of anger subside and then find an opportunity to have a private conversation where patients cannot overhear. She then might state something like “I’ve noticed that you’ve been taking 45 minutes for lunch lately. Because we are each supposed to take 30-minute lunches, this is affecting patient scheduling. I am feeling frustrated but do not want this to hinder our working relationship. I would like to find a solution that meets both of our needs.” Of course, there is no guarantee that the coworker will respond as desired, but he or she is much more likely to do so when he or she realizes the impact his or her behavior is having on others and when he or she does not feel that his or her personal character is being attacked.

Moving to a Solution

A medical assistant is most effective when she learns to avoid getting stuck in argumentation with patients, coworkers, or physicians. When she is in a conversation involving conflict, the medical assistant should direct the conversation toward clarifying the problem without pointing blame. Then she can begin discussing possible solutions. If an upset colleague or patient seems intent on laying blame, the medical assistant should tactfully, yet assertively, change the subject by asking a question such as “What solution to this problem do you have in mind?” In addition, the medical assistant should learn to monitor her own behavior. When she notices herself feeling upset or starting to assign blame, she should refocus her attention on finding a positive solution instead.

Setting Boundaries

While a medical assistant should always behave in a tactful, professional manner, she is not obligated to subject herself to verbal or physical abuse.Whether the aggressor is a patient, colleague, or even a physician, the strategies above should be employed. Medical assistants must sometimes set or enforce boundaries, or physical or psychological space that indicates the limit of appropriate versus inappropriate behavior. If such interventions fail to work and the behavior escalates, the medical assistant should solicit the intervention of the department or office manager. This person may have the ability to provide a fresh, unbiased perspective and also has a greater level of authority to help identify a solution to the problem. The medical assistant should report any threats of physical violence per office policy. If a patient or another person becomes physically violent, the medical assistant should immediately summon help, such as calling security or even calling the police, per office policy.