One of the most stressful aspects of the physician-patient relationship is dealing with angry patients. As you put all your energy into taking good care of your patients’ health, it can feel like a punch in the gut when a patient is upset with you. And when your patient’s wrath is directed at another physician, you might feel oddly shielded from direct threat yet unsettled.
As much as you may wish to let go of your discomfort when a patient expresses their rage about another physician, you’ll likely feel a nagging sense of tension. Rest assured that being unable to shake off apprehension about a patient’s antagonism toward another doctor doesn’t make you weak — it makes you human. And carefully dealing with your feelings as you think through how to respond in a way that doesn’t amplify any damage to either party requires mindfulness and self-care.
Be Kind to Your Patient
First and foremost, it’s important to be kind. You might be tempted to write off your patient’s rant, especially if their complaints seem unwarranted. Perhaps they have demanded a prescription for an inappropriate medication or expected to circumvent the standard wait to see an in-demand specialist.
But even if your medical knowledge tells you that your patient isn’t justified in their ire, it’s important to understand that something about their medical care has made them feel hurt — either emotionally or physically. Perhaps they feel that their concerns have been neglected or that they’re being belittled. Regardless of the specifics of the story, anger is often a response to pain, whether it’s somatic or psychological.
According to an article in the Journal of Patient Safety, patients rarely complain when they aren’t satisfied. So a patient sharing their anger with you could be a sign that they trust you. And just understanding that your patient is hurting is an important step for you before you even think about how to respond.
Give the Doctor the Benefit of the Doubt
Dealing with angry patients can be scary. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease published a study in which 15% of randomly sampled doctors reported having been stalked. If you feel any relief that you aren’t the target of your ranting patient’s bitterness, it’s probably because you realize how hard that could potentially be psychologically and professionally.
It’s important to also realize that the physician your patient speaks badly of is probably not a monster, even if they have done something to anger your patient. Some health issues tend to cause patients to feel unhappy with their medical care, despite the best intentions. A study in Pain reported that patients who ask for high amounts of pain medicine report a worse experience with their physicians, and physicians also report more difficulties with these patients’ visits. That’s a common trend, not a failure on the doctor’s part.
And jumping to conclusions about another physician almost never leads to a good outcome. Years ago, I witnessed an upsetting twist of fate unfold before my eyes when a physician I respected puffed with pride as he gave a play-by-play account of his great skill when it came to managing the physician-patient relationship. He fervently supported a patient’s bitter complaints about another doctor, only to suffer his own devastating professional setback less than a month later as the result of a different patient’s anger.
See If Peace Has a Chance
You may have a chance to be the voice of reason that can calm your patient down. If your patient trusts you enough to complain to you, they probably respect your opinion. You can help diffuse misunderstandings by gently explaining medical facts and reminding your patient that things aren’t always perfect — even under the very best of circumstances.
For example, you may encounter a patient who’s angry that their physician didn’t send a test for the COVID-19 virus when they had a fever or a cough in late 2019. You could remind your patient that we all didn’t know to test for COVID-19 at that time. Many anger triggers could similarly be due to issues in which hindsight is 20/20, but the situation at the time wasn’t so clear.
Last of all, it’s vital that you keep yourself from getting pulled into anything you could regret as you navigate your physician-patient relationship with an angry patient. You could rush through a packed schedule of patients and a long list of phone calls only to be faced with a patient shoving papers in front of you with a simple request: “Can you sign this?” You need to walk a fine line when patients want to put you on the spot and get “support” for disparaging another physician.
Backing up a patient’s claim against another physician without full information is unwise. And it’s highly likely that you won’t receive a full picture of all the facts from just one side. As the patient’s treating physician, you can absolutely step aside from making any statements that you aren’t prepared to make. And, realistically, if the situation reaches a stage in which supportive statements are requested, it’s best for an unbiased third party who isn’t treating your patient to review records and provide their conclusions about the matter.