How to Deal with Difficult Patients: 5 Ideas

As a chiropractor, you deal with all sorts of individuals. There are the “dream patients” who show up on time, are a pleasure to be around, and follow their treatment plans to a tee. 

Then there are those patients who aren’t so easy to work with. 

Every patient deserves great care, but some exhibit conduct that gets in the way. This may involve issues with keeping or paying for appointments, inappropriate behavior during sessions, or refusal to fully cooperate with treatment. 

After many years of coaching thousands of chiropractors through their ups and downs, we’ve learned a thing or two about navigating challenging patient interactions. In the sections below, we’ll review five helpful strategies for dealing with difficult patients. 

1. Building Empathy and Understanding

For many patients, combative or unproductive behavior is rooted in stress, fear, misunderstanding, or intense physical pain. Unhelpful behaviors may also be related to a psychiatric illness or a developmental disorder. 

When dealing with unpleasant patient conduct, empathy is key. Engage in active listening, validate the patient’s concerns, and offer comforting, non-judgmental responses. This type of empathetic communication won’t make interpersonal problems disappear, but it will provide a foundation for respect and cooperation. 

2. Setting Clear Expectations

Often, “difficult” patients arrive at your office with unrealistic expectations. This may be driven by misconceptions about chiropractic care or a lack of knowledge about their own health issues. When unrealistic expectations are present, patients may quickly move from over-optimism toward frustration and negativity. 

To prevent unnecessary friction, always do your best to set realistic expectations for each session. This includes:

  • Describing the role and responsibilities of both the chiropractor and the patient
  • Educating the patient about realistic treatment outcomes, timelines, and potential challenges
  • Outlining any pertinent behavioral guidelines for conduct during treatment sessions
  • Explaining what you are doing while you are doing it during adjustments

To help get your messages across, use resources like visual aids and handouts. If you want to require that certain information is received, ask patients to put their signature on handouts to verify that they’ve been read and agreed to. 

3. Practicing Patience and Positivity

When dealing with difficult patients, it’s easy to let your own frustrations come into play. You’re only human, and we all have those moments in which our defenses break down. As such, the goal isn’t to be perfectly cheerful in every single interaction, but rather to monitor your own behavior and be aware of the situations that tend to throw you off balance. 

As much as possible, strive to present a patient and positive attitude while working with challenging patients. By modeling a cooperative communication style, you’ll encourage patients to help make their treatment sessions more harmonious and pleasant. 

4. Establishing Firm Boundaries

Setting clear boundaries protects both parties in a chiropractor/patient relationship. The more difficult a patient is, the more important it is to have an established set of norms and rules that govern interactions between the two parties. 

Many boundaries can be clearly outlined in your practice’s official policies. These may cover issues like appointment cancellations, acceptable behavior during sessions, and communication outside of office hours. 

5. Seeking Professional Support

Every chiropractor deals with the occasional tough patient, but some see more than their fair share. This might be the result of your specialty or target population (e.g., working with kids or seniors), or it could just be a run of bad luck. Perhaps you provide care for a group—such as a family or the residents of a nursing home—and you find yourself treating one patient after another who all present the same tricky behavioral issues. 

If you’re having a hard time, be willing to seek support from professional advisors, business coaches, or mental health professionals. Professional assistance for dealing with difficult patients may come in many forms, including:

  • Strategic advice
  • Legal advice
  • Emotional support

Working with a professional can lighten your burden, offer new insights, and help you improve your decision-making as you navigate thorny situations. 

Training Your Staff on Dealing with Difficult Patients

Interactions between your practice’s patients and staff can significantly impact a patient’s experience. Too many negative interactions may also become a major stressor for your staff, affecting their job satisfaction and well-being.

To help your employees navigate challenging situations smoothly, provide the necessary support and resources and set clear protocols for dealing with difficult patients. You may find it helpful to provide training sessions that use role-playing to review the right and wrong ways to respond to various situations. 

It may also be useful to provide external resources, such as third-party training courses or coaching. Most importantly, foster a workplace environment in which your staff feels comfortable discussing issues and seeking your counsel. 

Get More Leadership Strategies for Your Chiropractic Practice

If you’re dealing with difficult patients or other stressful challenges, receiving some extra support and guidance can make a world of difference. At Aligned Mentoring for Chiropractors, we work with chiropractors in all career stages who want to grow their practices and thrive both personally and professionally. Contact AMC today to learn more. 



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