The 'difficult patient' as perceived by family physicians

Dov Steinmetz, Hava Tabenkin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

153 Scopus citations


Objectives. The aim of this study is to understand in depth the experience of the family physician faced with the patient that he perceives as 'difficult'. This was done by means of the 'long interview' as a method of qualitative research. Method. We interviewed 15 randomly selected Board-certified family physicians, with five or more years experience as specialists, employed in the northern district of the 'Clalit Health Services', the major sick fund in Israel. Results. The participants stated that the 'difficult' patients are not those with difficult medical problems but rather those who are violent, demanding, aggressive, rude and who seek secondary gain. Patients with multiple non-specific complaints and those with psychosomatic problems are also difficult for the family physician. Appropriate use of patient-doctor communication skills and an effort to improve relations with the patient through empathy, tolerance and non-judgmental listening were suggested by the physicians as ways of making the difficult encounter easier. Conclusions. Family physicians acknowledge their responsibility for the 'difficult' patient, and seek innovative and creative ways to cope with the difficult medical encounter. The more experienced the doctor is, the less he perceives patients as 'difficult', as he learns to accept greater diversity of behaviours in his patients.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)495-500
Number of pages6
JournalFamily Practice
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Difficult patient
  • Family physician
  • Qualitative research


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