Health Advisory

Conflict in Healthcare: Why It Happens and How to Resolve It

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, healthcare workers are struggling to manage not only the virus, but also misinformation about how to treat it. In news stories and on social media, doctors and nurses describe encounters where angry patients and their families demand unapproved treatments.

While these situations are an extreme example, conflict in healthcare is nothing new. When a patient is seriously ill, they and their loved ones are under a tremendous amount of stress—and that can lead to conflicts. 

Common sources of conflict in healthcare:

  • Disagreements with the medical team. Sometimes a patient or their family member doesn't understand, or isn't able to process, what their doctor or nurse is saying. They may disagree with a diagnosis or a recommended treatment, especially if it's not what they were hoping to hear. If the patient or a loved one doesn’t feel that they are being treated with care and respect, that can also lead to conflict.

  • Disagreements between family members. When a patient is unable to make decisions about their own care, it typically becomes the family's responsibility. Making decisions under stress can be extremely challenging, and family members may not agree on the best treatment options.

    For example, one family member may think their loved one needs inpatient treatment while another prefers outpatient care. Or one family member may want the patient to try an experimental treatment, while another considers it too risky.

  • Not following the treatment plan. If a patient misunderstands the doctor’s instructions or is reluctant to follow through on them, that can become a source of conflict between family members and the medical team, especially if the patient’s health worsens as a result.

  • Lack of end-of-life planning. If a patient receiving life-sustaining treatment has not made their wishes clear in advance (with a living will, for example), it can lead to family disagreements about how long to continue treatment. Loved ones may argue over what they think the patient would want, and when these arguments drag on, it can affect the patient's care.

How to avoid and resolve healthcare conflicts:

  • Have a plan in place. Is there someone you trust to make healthcare decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated? Set that person up as your healthcare power of attorney or medical surrogate, and share the decision with your loved ones, financial advisors, and family office. When a patient and their family have considered what to do in different health-related scenarios, including if an emergency arises, the process becomes less stressful and easier to manage.

  • Step back and consider the big picture. In high-stress environments, small things are often blown out of proportion. Seeing a loved one in the hospital can be very emotional, and it may bring up personal issues between family members. Be mindful of your stress level so that you won’t take out your frustrations on loved ones—or their medical team.

  • Work with an outside expert. When disagreements arise, it can be helpful to bring in a mediator. This could be a trusted friend, family member, or health advisor who provides a calming presence and a fresh perspective.

    Health advisors offer unbiased, independent advice, with a focus on what’s best for the patient. They improve communication between the patient, their family, and their medical team, which makes it easier for patients and their loved ones to evaluate treatment options. It also simplifies the process of managing the patient's care, both in the hospital and at home.

If you or someone you love is facing a health challenge, don’t wait until it becomes a source of conflict for your family. Reach out to an expert health advisor for help.

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