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How to Handle Difficult Physical Therapy Patients 
- As physical therapists, we all want patients to engage in their own care, but sometimes it's challenging.
Learn strategies to deal with difficult physical therapy patients in your physical therapy practice.
- Learn how to communicate, be solution-focused, how to strengthen the relationship, and when to terminate.
You can't always please everyone in physical therapy and all service industries. Even if you’re the best therapist you can be and do everything to please your patients, there will be a few here and there that are difficult to handle here and there. More than anything, you want your patients to be engaged in their own care, but there are several ways to manage difficult physical therapy patients and still be able to help them. After all, losing physical therapy patients isn't your goal.
When a physical therapy patient is being difficult, they aren't getting the most out of their care plan with you. There are many reasons that may cause a patient to be unhappy, unmotivated, or combative. Perhaps they are in a lot of pain or not seeing the results they hoped for. Sometimes it may be reasons beyond your control, such as financial trouble, stress at work, or family issues causing your patient unhappiness.
While every physical therapist wants to help their patients and improve the patient experience, difficult patients are notoriously hard to manage and can feel impossible to work with. No matter what, you must do your best in every situation and give your patients the best experience possible. In the end, some will remain a challenge, but with these tips on how to handle a difficult physical therapy patient, and a little extra effort, you and your staff members may be able to turn a difficult physical therapy patient into a success story!
Avoid Confronting Difficult Patients
A patient who is having a bad experience in your clinic is already looking for a way to escalate their reaction. Clear, calm communication is the key to de-escalating the situation and improving the patient experience. While you may be tempted to defend your position, they are not in a place to hear what you have to say right now. The most important thing you can do in this situation is to talk it out with your difficult patient. When you’re having trouble with a patient or he/she seems unhappy, take the time to sit down and ask your patient some non-confrontational questions. Find out exactly why he/she is acting this way so you know if it’s a personal reason or if you or a staff member have made him/her unhappy.
It's imperative that you remain calm! Ask your patient to help you understand what is wrong, validate their concerns by repeating them back, and empathize with the situation. An example of this sounds like, 'I understand that your appointment today was difficult. What I heard you say is [patient's reason]. Your experience matters to me, and I want to make an action plan to improve your future experience. This is my suggestion [idea for improvement], do you have anything you would like to add?'
Help Difficult Patients Find a Solution
Once you know the cause of their dissatisfaction, you can identify a solution to the problem. If the patient has an issue with therapy or results, you can work with them to modify their treatment or offer further explanation as to why he/she must do certain exercises and what exactly to expect. Many patients become frustrated when their treatment doesn't yield the results they are expecting. Be proactive and always work to educate patients on what success they might expect or what pitfalls they may encounter. Empathize with their frustration and offer action-based solutions that can help them identify small successes throughout the process.
Keep in mind if the patient is facing issues outside of the clinic, there may not be much you can do to help. Still, be a good listener and offer a smile and sympathy when needed; sometimes, all a patient really needs is to be truly heard and understood amidst their challenges, and you can be an ally for them in a time of need.
Don't Forget to Follow Up!
As a physical therapist, you already know that follow-up appointments are key to making progress, but the same rule applies to follow-up after a difficult encounter. After your initial discussion with this patient, make sure you or your receptionist follow up with the patient at their next appointment or by phone. This will give you an opportunity to find out if the situation has improved or if they’re still unhappy, and it also gives you the chance to build a bridge for a better connection. A phone call after clinic hours to let the patient know you have been thinking about them and that you want to check in and see how they are feeling now that they have had some time to process their appointment will go a long way!
Know When to End the Relationship
Some patients are simply challenging. They may have circumstances outside of your control as their physical therapist, or may not be a good fit for your practice. If your patient is belligerent or abusive to you or your staff, you may want to consider terminating the relationship. Focus on doing the best you possibly can and holding the rest of your staff to the same high standard. It's okay to terminate a patient who isn't a good fit. Patient experience is a huge contributor to your success and the growth of your business. If you can create loyal fans of your practice, the rest is easy!
Learn how to ask patients to review their excellent experiences and how that translates into more of the right patients for your physical therapy practice. More than 63% of patients use online reviews to choose a provider, take advantage of our free guide to getting more patient reviews!
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