Bullying in academic medicine, especially among women, is rife, underreported, and remains largely unaddressed, new research suggests.
Investigators reviewed close to 70 studies, encompassing over 82,000 medical consultants or trainees in academic medical settings, and found that men were identified as the most common perpetrators – close to 70% of respondents – whereas women were the most common victims (56%).
Collectively, respondents in all of the studies identified the most common bullies to be consultants (54%), followed by residents (22%), and nurses (15%).
Disturbingly, less than one-third of victims overall reported that they were bullied, and close to 60% who formally reported the abuse said they did not have a positive outcome.
“We found that bullies are commonly men and senior consultants, while more than half of their victims are women,” senior author Harriette G.C. Van Spall, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine and director of e-health and virtual care, Division of Cardiology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont., said in an interview.
“The greatest barriers to addressing academic bullying are the fear of reprisal, lack of impact of reporting, and non-enforcement of anti-bullying policies,” she added.
The study was published online July 12 in BMJ Open.
“Some behaviors were excruciating to deal with, protesting against them would bring more on, and every day was filled with dread. It took sheer will to show up at work to care for patients, to complete research I was leading, and to have hope, and my academic output, income, and personal well-being dropped during those years,” she added.
Dr. Van Spall thought the subject “merited research because our performance as clinicians, researchers, and educators relies on our work environment.”
To investigate, the researchers reviewed 68 studies (n = 82,349 respondents) conducted between 1999 and 2021 in academic medical settings, in which victims were either consultants or trainees. Many of the studies (31) were conducted in the U.S.
Other countries included the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, New Zealand, Lithuania, Greece, India, Germany, Nigeria, Oman, and Finland.
Studies were required to describe the method and impact of bullying; characteristics of the perpetrators and victims; or interventions that were used to address the bullying.
“Bullying” was defined as “the abuse of authority by a perpetrator who targets the victim in an academic setting through punishing behaviors that include overwork, destabilization, and isolation in order to impede the education or career of the target.”
Bullying behaviors, reported in 28 studies (n = 35,779 respondents), were grouped into destabilization, threats to professional status, overwork, and isolation, with overwork found to be the most common form of bullying.
The most common impact of being bullied was psychological distress, reported by 39.1% of respondents in 14 studies, followed by considerations of quitting (35.9%; 7 studies), and worsening of clinical performance (34.6%, 8 studies).
“Among demographic groups, men were identified as the most common perpetrators (67.2% of 4,722 respondents in 5 studies) and women the most common victims (56.2% of 15,246 respondents in 27 studies),” the authors report.
“Academic medicine in many institutions is encumbered by systemic sexism that is evident in processes around remuneration, recognition, opportunities for advancement, and leadership positions,” said Dr. Van Spall.
“There are fewer women at decision-making tables in academic medicine, the climb is uphill at the best of times, and women are likely easier targets for bullies, as their voices are easier to drown out,” she added.
She noted that many men do “exhibit wonderful attributes of professionalism and decency,” but “some in positions of power are given impunity by virtue of other accomplishments.”