4 Types of Difficult Patients and Tips for Dealing With Them

They can challenge our patience and turn our workday upside down.  This article will look at four common types of difficult patients and tips for dealing with them.. Nurses General Nursing Article Video

4 Types of Difficult Patients and Tips for Dealing With Them

It is inevitable. Your path will intersect with difficult patients over your nursing career. Angry, manipulative or overly needy patients can quickly wash away your already strained patience. Patient emotions surrounding loss of independence, stress and fear are often the driving factor behind difficult behavior. Difficult patients generally fall within four common types, which are often dependent on the driving factor. Understanding these types will help you remain compassionate and keep the lines of communication open.

The Dependent Clinger

Dependent clingers begin the patient-nurse relationship with a healthy dose of praise. Clingers often make statements such as: “What an angel, I knew you could help.”, or “You are such a wonderful nurse”. While we all like to get compliments, clingers use flattery as a way to manipulate. Clingers may have an endless stream of needs and demand chunks of your time. Unfortunately, we often over-extend ourselves and feel drained at the end of the day. We resort to avoiding the patient and they will act out to regain your time and attention.

The Entitled Demander

This patient type knows exactly what they want, when they want it and how they want it done. Instead of flattery, the demander will use anger and intimidation. Examples may include demands for:

  • Unnecessary lab work
  • Immediate appointments or notification of physician
  • Certain medications and treatments
  • Unnecessary referrals or consults

It is not uncommon for demanders to threaten attorney contact or lawsuits. In reality, all the posturing is just a smoke screen for feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.


This frustrating type has many physical or other complaints but rejects help when it is offered. The relentless “complain and reject” cycle may make this the most difficult type to manage. You may successfully put out one fire, but help-rejectors quickly replace it with another. A medication may be prescribed for an issue and you notify the patient. The patient’s response? “I have already tried that and it won’t help”.

The Noncompliant

How many times have you witnessed someone smoking with oxygen, drinking alcohol with liver cirrhosis or a patient refusing to take needed medications? The noncompliant often seems to be completely unaware of how their poor health decisions are going to play out. According to the Journal Neurology Clinical Practice, underlying anxiety or depression disorders could be contributing to noncompliant behavior and keeping them from good health. It is frustrating when we, as nurses, are unable to educate or persuade the patient into complying with the treatment plan.

Tips for Dealing With Difficult Patients

When a patient is angry, frustrated and acting out emotions, it is hard not to take it personally. However, it really isn’t about you, but more about their unpleasant set of circumstances. Nurse consultant, Julianne Haydel, advises “Continue to do your job and don’t let their negativity get in your head. Just knowing that the nastiness is not about you is a good start.”. After this first step, there are other tips to help you move forward with a difficult patient.

Recognize Early Signs

You may be able to avoid or deescalate a situation by picking up on early signs of upset or anger. These signs may include a change in behavior, tightened jaw, furrowed brow or other outward signs of building frustration. Also, consider other sources for the behavior, such as, pain, uncomfortable symptoms or other underlying problems.

Gain Your Own Emotional Control

It is easy for our own emotions to become heightened when faced with another person’s anger, frustration and dissatisfaction. However, you will be able to better address the situation if you don’t react, be proactive and think about your body language.

Listen Empathetically

A quick way to calm a difficult patient is to listen and react with empathy. It may be the patient just needs to vent and tell “their story”. Rather than being defensive, listen respectfully and remind yourself the patient is in an unfortunate situation. Everyone one likes feeling important and knowing they are cared for.

Avoid Arguing

This can be a hard one, especially if you are taking the patient’s behavior personally. Our first response is to go into a detailed explanation of why their medications are late or their needs are not being met. Try simply apologizing and reassure the patient you will address the problem.

Set Boundaries

Sometimes patients may have unrealistic or seemingly endless demands. In these cases, set consistent and clear boundaries and keep interactions standard. It is also helpful to have consistent boundaries set across the interdisciplinary team.

Don’t Accept Abusive Behavior

It is sometimes difficult to draw the line between abrasive and abusive behaviors and may depend on your work environment. Always alert your immediate supervisor if a patient continues abusive behavior after being told it is unacceptable. Implement your facilities protocol immediately If you feel a patient's behavior is placing you, or others, in physical danger.

A Part of Nursing

You will deal with difficult patients throughout your nursing career, it is unavoidable. And, even the most difficult patients deserve our best care. By practicing these tips, we can focus on providing quality care while setting boundaries for ourselves.

Additional Resources

6 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Patients

Dealing with the Difficult Patient


Nurse with over 20 years nursing experience in diverse settings and roles. Enjoys writing about what she encounters in her own nursing practice.

121 Articles   502 Posts

Share this post

Share on other sites

Helpful tips here so glad I came across this. After the last shift I had the other day, I just knew it was going to be my last day. The moment I got report I knew it was going to be the shift from hell. Demanding patients, demanding family members, one patient being sent to the er for a fall with head injury. It seemed like it was never ending. I don't know how I did it but managed to get out on time. ?

Specializes in SCRN.

Thanks for the tips!

The clingy type is the worst for me. Do my assessment, and then just quick rounds throughout the shift. I used to have a problem getting out of the room cause they talk too much, too, but I don't anymore. I've learned.

The demander comes around often, as the want everything done right now, I usually overestimate the time line for them. Sometimes, I do one thing for them, and ask to do one thing that needs to be done together.

Specializes in Med-Surg, Geriatrics, Wound Care.

I seem to do well with some types of patients. I pick up on the patient needs/wants, and while the first shift may be a challenge, subsequent shifts are usually better. I try to remember patient likes/dislikes/preferences (juice, ice, blankets, etc). Before going into the room, I take a look at the available PRN meds (or what time next ones are due). Usually a lot gets "fixed" the first night. So, whatever is needed is ready for subsequent nights.

I remember not too long ago I had the "drug seeker" type in bed A. If there's meds available, I'll give them. With these ones, I seem to have a pretty good "mental clock" to know when the next dose is available. 2nd night, B bed arrives - another pain management person. I do what I can for her, she eventually goes to sleep. Through the night A bed is fine, actually seemed relaxed that night. In the morning, I hear A bed tell B bed that I'm a good nurse and will take care of her. I work nights, so I know planning is easier for stuff like that, and I can make myself more available than during days when the phones won't stop ringing.

Other patients, like a woman that had gone blind and had MS and was increasingly weaker. She was pretty needy and slow. But, I learned how she liked things. And I could generally sense her being more at ease when she knew I was her nurse. Some people need more time and TLC. Yes, spending 10+ minutes getting her on and off the commode several times/night (basically every 2 hours), but it can just be about helping her keep her dignity. Yes, she swallowed 1 tablet at a time, slowly. She often spoke so softly, I had to put my ear close to hear her. She was needy, she took time, but in the end, she was also the reason I became a nurse.

On the other hand, I have very little tolerance for non-compliant patients (excluding those with psychiatric disorders).

Specializes in Tele, ICU, Staff Development.

Thanks for such helpful tips for dealing with difficult patients.

Another type of manipulation is splitting behaviors- the patient who greets you with "I'm so glad you're here! The nurse last night was so rude"

Straightaway I know I'm being played ?

Specializes in Clinical Leadership, Staff Development, Education.
On 7/12/2019 at 1:56 PM, no.intervention.required said:

I do one thing for them, and ask to do one thing that needs to be done together.

Good tip! Clingy hard for me too and I wish I was better about setting time boundaries.

Specializes in Clinical Leadership, Staff Development, Education.
On 7/14/2019 at 4:31 AM, CalicoKitty said:

She was needy, she took time, but in the end, she was also the reason I became a nurse.

Not all nurses have this patience and I know it means alot to your patients.

Specializes in Clinical Leadership, Staff Development, Education.
13 hours ago, Nurse Beth said:

Thanks for such helpful tips for dealing with difficult patients.

Another type of manipulation is splitting behaviors- the patient who greets you with "I'm so glad you're here! The nurse last night was so rude"

Straightaway I know I'm being played ?

this is so true!

Specializes in Neuroscience.

The moment a patient is asking for specific tests and medications, I always ask them:

-"What do you think this test/lab result will tell you?..."What results are you looking for?"

-"Why do you feel this test is necessary?"

-"Have you spoken with your doctor about these tests?"

This helps to open a conversation about their fears, their needs, and why they want specific things. You can help to educate once you understand why they request specific tests.