Toxic Employees

John Nelson, MD, MHM

The providers in every hospitalist practice should be a good fit for the practice’s culture. They should have reasonable relationships with their colleagues in the practice, patients and families, and other staff at the hospital.

I can’t imagine anyone arguing with this point of view. But in my work with hundreds of hospitalist practices over the past 15 years, I’ve found that many practices seem to have a hard time ensuring their providers meet that standard. I can think of lots of reasons for this. The first that comes to mind is the difficult HM recruiting environment. Almost all hospitalist practices needed to grow quickly, and many lowered the bar in the qualifications and the fit of the candidates they hired to make sure they filled all of their positions.

Even if it later becomes clear a provider isn’t a good fit for the group culture, or worse still lacks the knowledge base and judgment to perform well, many practices are reluctant to replace the hospitalist because it might be difficult to find a replacement—and there is no guarantee the new person will perform any better. Because of this, a number of practices have ended up with providers who in many cases have a negative influence on others in the practice, and both the practice and the problem provider would be better off if the provider went elsewhere.

The best approach is to prevent such problems from coming up. The best way to do this is to be very careful when hiring new providers.

The Problem Physician

To their credit, most practices do act when a provider simply lacks the skill and judgment to perform adequately. This can mean close proctoring/mentoring for an extended period, or requiring specific CME course work to correct a skill that is lacking. But it also means reassigning the person to a different job, or termination.

But in the case of someone with a toxic personality, practices often are more reluctant to act. I’ll often hear the leadership of a practice say something like, “We knew Alice wasn’t a good fit for our practice within a few weeks of her start date.” The start date was several years ago and nothing has been done about this. Not surprisingly, Alice still performs poorly.

I’m not talking about someone who has occasional problems. I’m talking about people who cause problems almost every time they show up to work. Here are some real anecdotes, with fictitious names to ensure anonymity for the person and institution:

  • Dr. Lee routinely disappears for several hours, during which he doesn’t answer pages. This even happens when he is the only doctor covering the practice.
  • Dr. Lifeson, while generally getting along well with his fellow hospitalists and the nursing staff, can be counted on to complain bitterly about all levels of the hospital administration and leadership. He never misses an opportunity to try to convince other hospitalists that the leadership is not only inept, but also clearly has a malicious intent toward hospitalists.
  • Dr. Peart complains incessantly about even tiny inequities in the work schedule or patient load. Others in the group have found that it is easier to ensure he always has the best schedule and lightest patient load, hoping they won’t have to hear his constant complaining. But even that hasn’t stemmed the steady downpour of negativity from him.

In all three of these cases, it seemed clear that the doctor should be terminated. And while the practice leadership agreed with me, they offered several excuses for why they hadn’t taken this step.

  • “Who knows if we can find a replacement who will be any better?”
  • “But he’s actually a decent doctor and doesn’t get a lot of complaints from patients.”
  • “He’s such an angry guy, we worry about litigation if we fire him.”

I can’t offer any clear rule about when a practice should stop trying to improve a provider’s behavior and recognize that it is time to terminate the provider. But it is worth remembering that waiting too long has many costs, including the satisfaction of others in the group. Everyone will think less of the practice they are part of if poor behavior is tolerated.

Assess the Situation, Then Take Action

Most doctors who serve as the lead physician for their group have little or no experience dealing with problem behavior, let alone experience ensuring that necessary steps are followed prior to disciplining or terminating someone. But every hospital has someone who is very knowledgeable about these things; they should be engaged for advice, and, in the case of hospital-employed groups, should participate in the process of counseling and/or termination. It is important to take advantage of the expertise that is available.

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