As a hospitalist, caring for critically ill or injured patients can be stressful and demanding. Working with difficult doctors, those who exhibit intimidating and disruptive behaviors such as verbal outbursts and physical threats as well as passive activities such as refusing to perform assigned tasks, can make the work environment even more challenging.1 Some docs are routinely reluctant—or refuse—to answer questions or return phone calls or pages. Some communicate in condescending language or voice intonation; some are brutally impatient.1
The most difficult doctors to work with are those who are not aligned with the hospital’s or treatment team’s goals and those who aren’t open to feedback and coaching, says Rob Zipper, MD, MMM, SFHM, regional chief medical officer of Sound Physicians, based in Tacoma, Wash.
“If physicians are aware of a practice’s guidelines and goals but simply won’t comply with them, it makes it harder on everyone else who is pulling the ship in the same direction,” he says.
- foster medical errors;
- contribute to poor patient satisfaction;
- contribute to preventable adverse outcomes;
- increase the cost of care;
- undermine team effectiveness; and
- cause qualified clinicians, administrators, and managers to seek new positions in more professional environments.1
“These issues are all connected,” says Stephen R. Nichols, MD, chief of clinical operations performance at the Schumacher Group in Brownwood, Texas. “Disruptive behaviors create mitigated communications and dissatisfaction among staff, which bleeds over into other aspects that are involved secondarily.”
Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., president and CEO of ELI in Atlanta, can attest to the most severe consequences of bad behavior on patient care.
At one institution, a surgeon’s disruptive behavior lead to a coworker forgetting to perform a procedure and a patient dying.2 In another incident, the emergency department stopped calling on a medical subspecialist who was predictably abusive. The subspecialist knew how to treat a specific patient with an unusual intervention. Since the specialist was not consulted initially, the patient ended up in the intensive care unit.2
One bad hospitalist can bring down the reputation of an entire team.
“Many programs are incentivized based on medical staff and primary-care physicians’ perceptions of their care, so there are direct and indirect consequences,” Dr. Zipper says.
The bottom line, says Felix Aguirre, MD, SFHM, vice president of medical affairs at IPC Healthcare in North Hollywood, Calif., is that it only takes one bad experience to tarnish a group, but it takes many positive experiences to erase the damage.
The Roots of Evil
Intimidating and disruptive behavior stems from both individual and systemic factors. Care providers who exhibit characteristics such as self-centeredness, immaturity, or defensiveness can be more prone to unprofessional behavior. They can lack interpersonal, coping, or conflict-management skills.1
Systemic factors are marked by pressures related to increased productivity demands, cost-containment requirements, embedded hierarchies, and fear of litigation in the healthcare environment. These pressures can be further exacerbated by changes to or differences in the authority, autonomy, empowerment, and roles or values of professionals on the healthcare team as well as by the continual daily changes in shifts, rotations, and interdepartmental support staff. This dynamic creates challenges for interprofessional communication and development of trust among team members.1
According to The Joint Commission, intimidating and disruptive behaviors are often manifested by healthcare professionals in positions of power.1 But other members of the care team can be problematic as well.
“In my experience, conflicts usually revolve around different perspectives and objectives, even if both parties are acting respectfully,” Dr. Zipper says. “Sometimes, however, providers or other care team members are tired or stressed and don’t behave professionally.”