The 5 Myths of "Difficult" Patients

I saw a “difficult” patient in the clinic this week.

We’ve all been there, sometimes multiple times a week.

The patient who is upset and won’t stop telling unrelated history.

The one who comes in every week with vague complaints with a negative workup.

The patient who is constantly going doctor shopping and doesn’t believe what you say even though they keep coming back.

The one who blames you for things out of your control or blames someone else and tries to get you on their side.

What I realized after my recent encounter is that even though my staff was spinning out about this patient, I hadn’t really thought much about it. I genuinely wasn’t bothered.

It’s not because I’ve never been bothered by “difficult” patients. I remember seeing “difficult” patients in the past and being flustered for hours or sometimes even days. I would even dread it when I saw them on my schedule again.

But this time, I wasn’t bothered because I’ve learned the five myths of “difficult” patients.

Myth 1: They are draining.

The truth is, no one can drain us. They’re not dementors.

We feel drained when we are around certain people because of all of the thoughts that we are thinking about them. But they can’t make us think any thoughts. No one can. We always get to choose what we want to think.

If you feel drained when you are around someone, take a look at what thoughts you are thinking, and you’ll see immediately why you are feeling drained.

Myth 2: They take too much time.

The truth is, no one can take our time unless they physically chain us up. We always get to choose what we do.

Our instincts may tell us that we can’t leave because that would be rude or because we haven’t fixed their problem yet. The truth is that those are just thoughts. And thoughts are optional. We get to choose how much time we spend with them.

There are many techniques to help take charge of time in a visit. Options include limiting the number of problems addressed in a visit, politely but firmly redirecting them, or simply saying, “unfortunately, I have to step out to take care of my other patients, but let’s check you back next week …”

The bottom line is that we always get to choose whether to continue staying in the room. Even if they say, they’re not done. Even if they get upset. And if they get upset, we get to choose what we make that mean.

Myth 3: They stress me out.

The truth is, no one can stress us out. Our stress comes from our thoughts, and no one can force us to think and believe anything we don’t want to.

They can offer us options. They can act in a way that we have a thought about. But at the end of the day, we get to choose whether we want to have a thought that causes stress or if we want a thought that creates a different feeling.

Myth 4: They shouldn’t be like that.

The truth is, they should be like that. We have no idea what biology, environment, or life experiences have led up to them being the way they are. We can’t know this for anyone.

More importantly, anytime we argue with reality, it causes us to suffer. How do we know that they should be exactly like they are or do what they are doing? Because they are that way and that’s what they’re doing.

If we allow those things and people that we cannot change to be exactly as they are, all of a sudden we free up all of our energy and focus to change the things that are within our power, like our thoughts, our actions, and our results.

Myth 5: I can’t help them.

The truth is that you don’t know if you will help them, and there is no reason you can’t help them just like anyone else. We all know that sometimes just hearing someone can be an incredible gift.

If you can recognize these myths about “difficult” patients, you will likely find that seeing “difficult” patients is much more comfortable and less time-consuming for you. And when we are at peace instead of stressed out and drained, we are generally more able to help. We are certainly more able to show up in the way we want.

How would you feel, and what would your life be like if you never had another “difficult” patient?