In the March 2019 issue of The Hospitalist, I wrote about some key findings from a 2018 survey of U.S. physicians by The Physicians Foundation. It’s no surprise to anyone working in health care today that the survey found alarming levels of professional dissatisfaction, burnout, and pessimism about the future of medicine among respondent physicians. Sadly, it appears that much of that pessimism is directed toward hospitals and their leaders: 46% of survey respondents viewed the relationships between physicians and hospitals as somewhat or mostly negative and adversarial.
Several physicians posted comments online, and they deeply saddened me. My heart hurt for those doctors who wrote, “I loved medicine. It was good for my soul, but medicine left me. Doctors gave up most of their power and large corporations without an ethical foundation and no god, but money took over.” Or “They are waiting so all the senior physicians will retire. Nurses will become leaders who will follow administration’s lead and control physicians. Money and cost cutting is the major driver. Physicians are not valuable anymore because they have different opinions which cost a lot. There is a lot of window dressing, but they actually don’t care. They just want to run a business.” I also read “I was tossed out like dirty laundry water at age 59.” And “On a personal basis, I will try to reason with management exactly once before I bail.” Sigh.
These commenters are well-meaning physicians who had bad experiences with hospital leaders they saw as uncaring and unresponsive to their concerns as clinicians. Their experiences left them demoralized and embittered. I’m truly sorry for that.
I’m a recovering hospital administrator myself. My business partner John Nelson, MD, MHM, likes to tell people that he has successfully deprogrammed me from the way most administrators think about doctors, but he’s mostly joking (at least I think he is). I can tell you that most of the hospital leaders I have met – both when I was still an administrator and now in my consulting work – are well-intentioned people who care deeply about patients and their fellow health care professionals and are trying hard to do the right thing. Many of them could have earned more and had better career opportunities doing similar work in a field other than health care, but they chose health care out of a sincere desire to do good and help people.
A big part of the problem is that doctors and administrators come to health care from very different starting points, and so have very different perspectives. They generally function in separate silos, each paying attention to their own comfortable little part of that monster we call a health care delivery system. Often, neither administrators nor doctors have made enough effort to cross over and understand the issues and perspectives of people in other silos. As a result, it’s easy for assumptions and biases to creep in and poison our interactions.
When we interpret the behavior of others, we humans tend to overemphasize dispositional factors, such as personality or motives, and to discount situational factors, such as external stressors. Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias, and the result is usually heightened conflict as a result of presumed negative intentions on the part of others (“All she cares about is making a profit”) and discounting circumstantial factors that might be influencing others’ behavior (“She is facing reduced market share and a funding shortfall, and she’s fearful for the future of the institution”).
Add in another phenomenon known as the actor-observer bias, in which we tend to attribute others’ behavior to their dispositions but attribute our own behavior to the circumstances (“That administrator lost his temper because he’s a demanding jerk, but I only lost my temper because he pushed me over the edge”).
Is it possible that hospital leaders and doctors are reading each other inaccurately and that they’re making assumptions about each other’s intentions that get in the way of having constructive dialogue? How can we get to a place of greater trust? I don’t know the whole answer, of course, but I have a few ideas to offer.
Read the full post at hospitalleader.org.