Patients with challenging behaviors: Communication strategies

Author and Disclosure Information


Some patients have behaviors that make interactions unpleasant, sometimes contributing to suboptimal outcomes and physician burnout. Understanding common difficult personality types can help doctors plan effective strategies for dealing with each, resulting in more effective communication, less stress, and better health outcomes.


  • Patients who intensely question everything need validation of their need for information and a collaborative approach based on sound medical evidence.
  • Patients whose behavior is hostile and demanding need limits placed on aggressive behavior and assurance that the healthcare team is working in their best interests.
  • Patients who seek reassurance to the point of overuse of the doctor’s time need to have boundaries set.
  • Many patients who injure themselves and deny the problem have a personality disorder. They need empathy and a clear plan for care, often involving behavioral therapy.
  • Physicians should plan effective communication strategies for difficult patients, discuss issues with colleagues, and use relaxation methods to help avoid burnout.



From time to time, all physicians encounter patients whose behavior evokes negative emotions. In 1978, in an article titled “Taking care of the hateful patient,”1 Groves detailed 4 types of patients—“dependent clingers, entitled demanders, manipulative help-rejecters, and self-destructive deniers”1—that even the most seasoned physicians dread, and provided suggestions for managing interactions with them. The topic was revisited and updated in 2006 by Strous et al.2

See related editorial

Now, more than 10 years later, the challenge of how to interact with difficult patients is more relevant than ever. A cultural environment in which every patient can become an “expert” via the Internet has added new challenges. Patients who are especially time-consuming and emotionally draining exacerbate the many other pressures physicians face today (eg, increased paperwork, cost-consciousness, shortened appointment times, and the move to electronic medical records), contributing to physician burnout.

This article further updates the topic of managing challenging patients to reflect the current practice climate. We provide a more modern view of challenging patients and provide guidance on handling them. Although it may be tempting to diagnose some of these patients as having a personality disorder, it can often be more helpful to recognize patterns of behavior and have a clear plan for management. We also discuss general coping strategies for avoiding physician burnout.


A 45-year-old man carries in an overstuffed briefcase for his first primary care visit. He is a medical editor for a national journal and recently worked on a case study involving a rare cancer. As he edited, he recognized that he had the same symptoms and diagnosed himself with the same disease. He has brought with him a sheaf of articles he found on the Internet detailing clinical trials for experimental treatments. When the doctor begins to ask questions, he says the answers are irrelevant: he explains that he would have gone straight to an oncologist, but his insurance policy requires that he also have a primary care physician. He now expects the doctor to order magnetic resonance imaging, refer him to an oncologist, and support his request for the treatment he has identified as best.

The Internet: A blessing and a curse

Patients now have access to enormous amounts of information of variable accuracy. As in this case, patients may come to an appointment carrying early research studies that the physician has not yet reviewed. Others get their information from patient blogs that frequently offer opinions without evidence. Often, based on an advertisement or Internet reading, a patient requests a particular medication or test that may not be cost-effective or medically justified.

In a survey more than 10 years ago, more than 75% of physicians reported that they had patients who brought in information from online sources.3 Hu et al4 reported that 70% of patients who had online information planned to discuss it with their physicians. This practice is only growing, including in older patients.5

Physicians may feel confused and frustrated by patients who come armed with information. They may infer that patients do not trust them to diagnose correctly or treat optimally. In addition, discussing such information takes time, causing others on the schedule to wait, adding to the stress of coping with over-booked appointments.

Why so overprepared?

Patients who have or fear that they have cancer may be particularly worried that an important treatment will be overlooked.6 Since they feel that their life is hanging in the balance, their search for a definitive cure is understandable.

Internet-seeking, intensely questioning patients clearly want more information about the treatments they are receiving, alternative medical or procedural options, and complementary therapies.7 The response to their desire for more information affects their impression of physician empathy.8

Adapting to a more informed patient

Approaching these patients as an opportunity to educate may result in a more trusting patient and one more likely to be open to physician guidance and more likely to adhere to an advised treatment plan. Triangulation of the 3 actors—the physician, the patient, and the Web—can help patients to make more-informed choices and foster an attitude of partnership with the physician to lead them to optimal healthcare.

In a review of the impact of Internet use on healthcare and the physician-patient relationship, Wald et al9 urged physicians to:

  • Adopt a positive attitude toward discussing Internet contributions
  • Encourage patients to take an active role in maintaining health
  • Acknowledge patient concerns and fears
  • Avoid becoming defensive
  • Recommend credible Internet sources.

Laing et al10 urged physicians to recognize rather than deny the effects of patients’ online searching for information and support, and not to ignore the potential impact on treatment. Consumers are gaining autonomy and self-efficacy, and Laing et al encouraged healthcare providers to develop ways to incorporate this new reality into the services they provide.10

How Web-based interaction can assist in patient decision-making for colorectal cancer screening is being explored.11 Patients at home can use an online tool to learn about screening choices and would be more knowledgable and comfortable discussing the options with their care provider. The hope is to build in an automatic reminder for the clinician, who would better understand the patient’s preference before the office visit.

One approach to our patient is to say, “I can see how worried you are about having the same type of cancer you read about, and I want to help you. It is clear to me that you know a lot about healthcare, and I appreciate your engagement in your health. How about starting over? Let me ask a few questions so I can get a better perspective on your symptoms?” Many times, this strategy can help patients reframe their view and accept help.


Next Article:

Labels matter: Challenging conversations or challenging people?

Related Articles