If you’ve been a hospitalist leader for a few years, you likely are familiar with the specter of the disruptive physician. Most group leaders dread dealing with a hospitalist who exhibits behavior that upsets the group or the hospital staff; fewer meet the task head-on and try to change that behavior; and fewer still enjoy the challenge.
If you fall into one of the first two categories, take comfort in knowing you aren’t alone. But if you know that problem hospitalists are a management challenge, you should seek counsel or training to address such issues when they arise.
—Aaron Gottesman, MD, FACP, Staten Island (N.Y.) University Hospital
Managers are responsible for maintaining equilibrium in their HM groups, so it’s important to understand what constitutes disruptive behavior. “What it really comes down to is behavior which can impair patient care, collegiality, and the overall work in the hospital,” says Aaron Gottesman, MD, FACP, director of hospitalist services at Staten Island University Hospital in New York. “If a specific physician or other staff member acts in a way that hampers staff satisfaction, patient satisfaction, and obviously care, then that is disruptive.”
Disruptive behavior in the hospital can come from any staff member, not just physicians. Disruptive physicians receive greater attention because their bad behavior is more likely to be noticed and reported. And they do tend to get angry. “Physicians are time-sensitive, and they’re perfectionists,” says Timothy J. Keogh, PhD, assistant professor at the Citadel School of Business Administration in Charleston, S.C., who has researched physicians’ personality traits. “When they’re put in a stressful situation—such as an ED or ICU, where the outcomes may be uncertain and they’re operating on insufficient sleep or under stress—you may see this behavior.”
Although HM is a stressful career path with challenges of its own, Dr. Gottesman says he rarely notices the same level of disruptive behavior as can be found in the ED, OR, or ICU. “I don’t think it occurs among hospitalists any more than among the general physician population,” he says. “Hospitalists are not under the same time constraints; they don’t have as much stress or pressure—or at least they have a different kind.”
So who is responsible for dealing with a physician who behaves badly? In all cases, it should be the individual’s immediate supervisor.
The crucial component in dealing with a disruptive employee is to have an official behavior policy that is shared with everyone in your organization. The Joint Commission recently required hospitals to employ a code of conduct that outlines acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and it sets a process for addressing problematic behavior.
“You can bet physicians and nurses know it, including the disruptive individuals,” Dr. Keogh says. “This will make it much easier for executives to enforce.”
Dr. Gottesman relies on his organization’s policy. “It’s absolutely critical to have a sense of direction, to know what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate, to have a procedure to follow,” he says. “Having policies and protocol in place is also critical for legal protection if the situation escalates. It protects the physician, the staff, the patients, and the institution.”
Dr. Keogh, a faculty member of SHM’s Leadership Academy, recommends that all physician employees learn their code of conduct policy. “To prevent downstream behaviors, when you get a new hire, don’t just give them this statement—read that section to them out loud,” he advises. “This ensures that they notice it, and gives hospitalist executives a much stronger position when something happens.”