Pasadena City College, Home of the PCC Lancers

WAC/Health Sciences

A Step-by-Step Guide for Talking to Upset Patients

The following information is taken from the article "Communication in Health Care" by Stephanie Barnard, a public relations expert who specializes in helping health care professionals communicate well. You can find this article in the book Writing, Speaking and Communication Skills for Health Professionals (Yale UP, 2001).  This book is recommended for all new and experienced health care providers.

Step-by-Step Guide

1.  Listen to their complaint.  Do not try to defend yourself or explain.  Give them a chance to express their feelings, and try to understand their perspective.

2.  Calmly and clearly repeat back to them what they said.  For instance, if they exaggerate, repeat their exaggerated claim back to them.  This may encourage them to be more realistic, and it will show them that you are listening.

3.  Immediately after you have repeated their words back to them, express what you are trying to accomplish. Be calm, clear, and professional.

4.  Offer a solution while giving them a choice.

Here's what a sample conversation might look like:

Angry Patient:  "Every time you clean my teeth, you make my gums bleed all over the place.  My gums never bled with my old dental hygenist.  Why do you have to make it hurt so bad?."

Dental Hygenist (nicely and calmly, not discussing the patient's previous hygenist):  "Your gums bleed a lot and you wish it didn't hurt so much."

Angry Patient:  "Yes...well, maybe not a lot, but I don't like the site of blood."

Dental Hygenist (nicely and calmly):  "My intention is to clean your teeth thoroughly, and sometimes that causes some bleeding.  Would you like me to give you water more frequently, or would you like me to finish as quickly as possible?"

Patient (calmer now):  "I guess I can bear it.  Try to get through it as fast as possible.  Sorry about that."

Remember, you will get better at this skill as you gain more experience and build confidence, but it is extremely helpful to practice. Get a friend or family member to do a role play with you to help you practice what to say in difficult situations.





The information on this page is taken from Stephanie Barnard's article, "Communication in Health Care," from the book Writing, Speaking, and Communication Skills for Health Professionals (Yale UP, 2001).