How to manage patient expectations


You’re the nurse. Not the butler. Not the waitress. Not the servant. But when unhappy patients treat you like one, it may be time to put the stress of dealing with them into perspective.

We ask Dr. Brady Pregerson (“MD”) and Nurse Rebekah Child (“RN”) for their points of view.

MD: We’re all painfully aware of the challenges of meeting patient expectations, and fortunately many of our patients are, too. There are a multitude of reasons we can “let our patients down.”

  • Sometimes we forget things when we’re juggling multiple tasks.
  • Every part of our job takes time, which always seems to be a commodity in short supply
  • When we’re in a hurry, doing the right thing usually takes precedence over explaining it.
  • Maintaining patient privacy can be difficult when your patient is hard of hearing and only a thin curtain separates him from the bed in the adjacent treatment area.
  • The inevitable delays that we can’t always predict: a hemolyzed blood specimen, a long wait for CT, a family doctor who takes two hours to return a phone call.

Each time I apologize to a patient for the wait and they answer, “I completely understand—everyone looks very busy and I know things take time,” I feel a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. The understanding patient is truly a blessing, and luckily there are many of them. But how should one handle the unhappy patient, the one who doesn’t seem to get it—get how busy we are—or doesn’t seem to care?

RN: One way is to put ourselves in the patient’s shoes. Imagine you have a stomachache and you think it’s cancer (doesn’t everyone always think it’s cancer?), and no one explains anything to you, or the wait times. Or what if you’re in pain or you’re cold? The list goes on and on. I think we need to try to remember that this is our area of expertise and a very foreign land for many people. In certain situations, empathy is king.

It’s never a pleasant process dealing with someone who is rude or can’t be pleased, but that’s just one of the challenges we face on a daily basis. If you have a strategy, maybe you can win both the battle and the war.


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