Practice Economics

Tips for Working with Difficult Doctors


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

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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.

Unruly physicians don’t just annoy their coworkers. According to a sentinel event alert from The Joint Commission, they can:

  • 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.”

Paskoff, who has more than 40 years of experience in healthcare-related workplace issues, including serving as an investigator for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, says some doctors learn bad behaviors from their mentors and that behaviors can be passed down through generations because they are tolerated.

“When I asked one physician who had outstanding training and an outstanding technical reputation how he became abusive, he said, ‘I learned from the best.’” Paskoff was actually able to track the doctor’s training to the late 1800s and physicians who were known for similar behaviors.

Confronting Those Who Misbehave

Dr. Zipper says physicians should confront behavioral issues directly.

“I will typically discuss a complaint with a doctor privately, and ask him or her what happened without being accusatory,” he says. “I try to provide as much concrete and objective information as I can. The doctor needs to know that you are trying to help him or her succeed. That said, if something is clearly bad behavior, feedback should be direct and include a statement such as, ‘This is not how we behave in this practice.’”

At times, it may not be possible to discuss an emergent matter, such as during a code blue.

“However, I will often ask if anyone on the code team has any ideas or concerns before ending the code,” Dr. Nichols says. “Then after the critical time has passed, it is important to debrief and reconnect with the team, especially the less-experienced members who may have lingering concerns.”

For many employees, however, it is difficult to report disruptive behaviors. This is due to a fear of retaliation and the stigma associated with “blowing the whistle” on a colleague as well as a general reluctance to confront an intimidator.1

If an employee cannot muster the courage to confront a disruptive coworker or if the issue isn’t resolved by talking with the difficult individual, an employee should be a good citizen and report bad behavior to the appropriate hospital authority in a timely manner, says A. Kevin Troutman, Esq., a partner at Fisher Phillips in Houston and a former healthcare human resources executive.

Hospitals accredited by The Joint Commission are required to create a code of conduct that defines disruptive and inappropriate behaviors. In addition, leaders must create and implement a process for managing these behaviors.1

Helping Difficult Doctors

After a physician or another employee has been called out for bad behavior, steps need to be taken to correct the problem. Robert Fuller, Esq., an attorney with Nelson Hardiman, LLP, in Los Angeles, has found a positive-oriented intervention called “the 3-Ds”—which stands for diagnose, design, and do—that has been a successful tool for achieving positive change. The strategy involves a supervisor and employee mutually developing a worksheet to diagnose the problem. Next, they design a remediation and improvement plan. Finally, they implement the plan and specify dates to achieve certain milestones. Coworkers should be informed of the plan and be urged to support it.

“Make it clear that the positive aspect of this plan turns to progressive discipline, including termination, if the employee doesn’t improve or abandons the plan of action,” Fuller says. In most cases, troublemakers will make a sincere effort to control disruptive tendencies.

Troutman suggests enlisting the assistance of a respected peer.

“Have a senior-level doctor help the noncompliant physician understand why his or her behavior creates problems for everyone, including the doctor himself,” he says. “Also, consider connecting compensation and other rewards to job performance, which encompasses good behavior and good citizenship within the organization. Make expectations and consequences clear.”

If an employee has a recent change in behavior, ask if there is a reason.

“It is my experience that sudden changes in behaviors are often the result of a personal or clinical issue, so it is important and humane to make certain that there is not some other cause for the change before assuming someone is simply being disruptive or difficult,” Dr. Nichols says.

Many healthcare institutions are now setting up centers of professionalism. Paskoff reports that The Center for Professionalism and Peer Support (CPPS) was created in 2008 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to educate the hospital community regarding professionalism and manage unprofessional behavior.3 CPPS has established standards of behavior and a framework to deal with difficult behaviors.

“An employee is told what he or she is doing wrong, receives counseling, and is given resources to improve,” he explains. “If an employee doesn’t improve, he or she is told that the behavior won’t be tolerated.”

Dismissing Bad Employees

After addressing the specifics of unacceptable behavior and explaining the consequences of repeating it, leadership should monitor subsequent conduct and provide feedback.

“If the employee commits other violations or behaves badly, promptly address the misconduct again and make it clear that further such actions will not be tolerated,” Troutman says. “Expect immediate and sustained improvement and compliance. Be consistent, and if bad conduct continues after an opportunity to improve, do not prolong anyone’s suffering. Instead, terminate the disruptive employee. When you do, make the reasons clear.”

Karen Appold is a medical writer in Pennsylvania.


  1. Behaviors that undermine a culture of safety. The Joint Commission website. Accessed April 17, 2015.
  2. Whittemore AD, New England Society for Vascular Surgery. The impact of professionalism on safe surgical care. J Vasc Surg. 2007;45(2):415-419.
  3. Shapiro J, Whittemore A, Tsen LC. Instituting a culture of professionalism: the establishment of a center for professionalism and peer support. Jt Comm J Qual Patient Saf. 2014;40(4):168-177.

Are Behaviors Getting Better or Worse?

Ronald Wyatt, MD, MHA

Ronald Wyatt, MD, MHA

The Joint Commission issued a sentinel event alert1 on July 9, 2008, as a result of continuous reports to the commission’s Office of Quality and Patient Safety about disruptive behavior. Despite efforts to prevent employees from behaving badly, Ronald Wyatt, MD, MHA, medical director of the Division of Healthcare Improvement, says there is no evidence that the number of instances of bad behavior is decreasing.

According to a 2013 Institute for Safe Medication Practices survey with 4,884 respondents:2

  • 73% reported encountering negative comments about colleagues or leaders during the previous year.
  • 68% reported condescending language or demeaning comments or insults.
  • 77% said they had encountered reluctance or refusal to answer questions or return calls.
  • 69% reported they had encountered impatience with questions or hanging up the phone.

In addition, in a 2011 survey of more than 500 physician leaders and more than 300 staff physicians, 71 percent of respondents stated they had witnessed some type of disruptive behavior within the previous month, while 26 percent stated that they had been disruptive at one point in their career.3

Despite the gloomy news, Dr. Wyatt says, “There is increased awareness of disruptive behaviors, and they are being reported more often than in the past.”

As a former chief of medicine at a hospital, Dr. Wyatt says the lack of improvement could be due to hospital leadership.

“This is a critical piece to having a sound patient safety system,” he says.

In order for bad behaviors to improve, hospital leadership needs to be committed to creating a culture of safety. This would involve answering “yes” to the following questions:

  • Does staff feel safe to report disruptive behaviors, and will leadership act on those reports?
  • Is leadership committed to decreasing these types of behaviors?
  • Is there a reporting system in place, and is it being used, monitored, and acted on?
  • Can leadership step in and enforce the process if physicians aren’t complying?
  • Is a model in place if intervention is necessary?

According to Dr. Wyatt, data show that one intervention is usually enough for most physicians to cease bad behaviors, but a small portion will persist.4

Hospitals accredited by The Joint Commission can contact the organization for a template regarding a policy for disruptive behaviors. Some consultants can also provide this.

Karen Appold


  1. Behaviors that undermine a culture of safety. The Joint Commission website. Accessed April 17, 2015.
  2. Patient safety systems. Comprehensive Accreditation Manual for Hospitals. The Joint Commission. January 1, 2015:7-8.
  3. MacDonald O. Disruptive physician behavior. Quantia Communications, Inc.: Waltham, MA. May 15, 2011.
  4. Pichert JW, Moore IN, Karrass J, et al. An intervention model that promotes accountability: peer messengers and patient/family complaints. Jt Comm J Qual Patient Saf. 2013;39(10):435-446.

Proceed with Caution When Hiring Staff

A. Kevin Troutman, Esq.

A. Kevin Troutman, Esq.

Ideally, an institution won’t hire someone with intimidating and disruptive behavior in the first place. But this is always easier said than done.

In an effort to select and hire the best employees, it is important during the interview process to ask many questions about a candidate’s prior experiences and previous bosses as well as what the employee perceives to be good behavior and reasonable expectations.

“Listen for victim-like responses and criticisms of prior supervisors or employers,” says A. Kevin Troutman, Esq., a partner at Fisher Phillips in Houston and a former healthcare human resources executive. “Such responses are red flags that may help predict how the applicant will work out in your organization.”

Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., president and CEO of ELI in Atlanta, says it’s best for the candidate to have interviews with multiple staff members in different ranks.

“Sometimes people will show a different side if he or she perceives someone as unimportant or someone that he or she could boss around,” he says. “The interview can be very telling if the applicant is a cultural fit or not.”

Carefully check a candidate’s previous training and employment records. It can be difficult, however, to decipher whether a potential employee will indeed be a good choice because prior employers almost uniformly refuse to provide more than someone’s position and dates of employment when references are checked, says Robert Fuller, Esq., an attorney with Nelson Hardiman, LLP, in Los Angeles.

Consequently, Fuller recommends that hospitals have very specific probation policies, allowing for termination for any reason within the first 90 days of employment and active supervision of new employees to ensure that no red flags are raised within that time frame.

If someone was fired from a previous job, use extra caution in making a hiring decision. Paskoff advises considering the facts: What was the person fired for? What do his or her records look like?

“Just because someone was fired, you shouldn’t dismiss him or her, but know what he or she was fired for and how well the firing was documented and investigated,” he says.

Fuller advises differently.

“If proper policies were followed and the employee failed to comport with improvement recommendations, he or she is not going to be any different the second time around,” he says.

Although the job interview process can be lengthy, “don’t take any shortcuts,” Paskoff says. You may end up costing an organization a lot more than time if you do.

Karen Appold

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