Challenges of Nursing: The Difficult Patient

You love being a nurse, caring for those who need you most, and making a difference in the lives of your patients. Of course your day won’t be complete without a difficult patient encounter or dealing with a demanding family member. Even with all the challenges of nursing, for you it’s still extremely rewarding.

Keeping Your Cool With The Difficult Patient/Family Member

One of the biggest challenges of nursing no matter where you work is the difficult patient, or their loved ones. As empathetic as you try to be, that one patient who hits the call button every 5 minutes or the family member who approaches the desk ready for battle weigh on you. Demanding patients pose some of the most difficult challenges in nursing.  

As with any career you’re going to have days when those challenges of nursing add up. How can you handle the career to which you feel called, the career you love, on those days when the challenges of nursing are almost too much to bear?

Find Out the Root Cause

Try to find the reason your patient demanding, overly critical, or simply cruel patient is acting out. Certain medical conditions can exacerbate the negative aspects of a patient’s personality. Likewise, if a patient is in pain, or experiencing side-effects of certain medications they won’t be themselves. If a patient seems to be aggressive, critical, or mean, look at their medication and determine if changes need to be made. 

Demonstrate Your Care

For the benefit of your patient, their family, and yourself, demonstrate kind and caring attention no matter what. Many patients, especially those elderly or alone, feel extremely vulnerable in a hospital setting. Set aside your own frustration with a needy or demanding patient. Take a moment to let them know you care (without neglecting your other patients).

Find a Way to Connect

You would be amazed how much simply connecting with your patient helps you to overcome some of the challenges of nursing. Everyone wants to feel special, and no one more than the vulnerable hospital patient. Find a common thread. Speak to the patient’s loved ones and get to know them from a different perspective. Two things will likely happen; your patient will no longer cause you to grit your teeth as you begin to connect with the individual, and your patient may feel better and drop the negative attitude altogether. 

Remain Objective

You care about all of your patients. Not only is it your job, it’s part of what makes you an excellent nurse. So when confronted with such challenges of nursing as a difficult and demanding patient or family member, remain objective. Don’t feel as though the needs of a demanding patient must be met immediately if they can wait. You may have other, more urgent patients. Learn to prioritize. Never be bullied into putting the “squeaky wheel” above your other patients.

Recognize Your Triggers

Some patients and their families tend to be manipulative when it comes to demanding your attention. Ranting, threatening, and attempting to draw you into a conflict may be the only way they know to get what they want.  Learn to recognize those actions that “push your buttons”. Part of staying objective is recognizing those actions that trigger your response. 

Try to Remain Calm

 Remaining calm in the face of demanding and difficult people is, in itself, among the top challenges of nursing. A difficult person, whether a family member or patient, can cause you to become annoyed, irritated, and downright angry. These feelings can rattle even the most experienced nurse, undermining their ability to provide patient care. Avoid the fallout of demanding patients by learning to remain calm. Take some deep breaths, let your coworkers know you need to walk away for a moment to restore your composure, practice mindfulness techniques, whatever it takes. Do all that you can to ease the tension and prevent the situation from escalating.

Be Proactive

Experience is a wonderful teacher. Soon enough you’ll learn to recognize those “red flags” alerting you to these specific challenges of nursing. Once you read a difficult situation for what it is take steps to diffuse a situation before it becomes distressing. Slow down, be respectful, ask for help if necessary.

Don’t Take It Personally

When you’re faced with the many challenges of nursing it can be easy to take some patient demands and accusations personally. Try to remember why your patient is in your care. They’re dealing with some very challenging circumstances and are likely filled with anxiety. Recognizing their negative actions really have nothing to do with you can help in dealing with a difficult patient.

Stay Focused on Providing Care

No matter how difficult the patient or family can be, your patient deserves quality care. Do the very best you can do and recognize that not matter how challenging the patient, at the end of your shift, they still received your finest care and attention because of you.

Abuse is Never OK  

Some patients and their families are easily “provoked”. Through no fault of your own, and usually due to underlying frustrations, these people can become abusive. Cursing, insults, threats, or any other types of verbal abuse must be stopped immediately. Let your patient or family know this behavior will not be tolerated and you will call security if it persists. If you ever receive a threat or physical abuse, obviously, alert security and your supervisors. 

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