Temper Tantrums, Bullying Colleagues: How to Avert Physician Misbehavior?

Tara Haelle

October 04, 2022

Daniel Freedman, DO, a pediatric neurologist in Austin, Texas, remembers being flabbergasted when a surgeon threw an instrument across the room in medical school.

"I remember thinking, 'I can't believe people actually do this, a grown man in his 50s having a temper tantrum,' " Freedman told Medscape Medical News. But it certainly wasn't the last time he witnessed bad behavior by one of his peers.

The results of Medscape's recent report, Physicians Behaving Badly: Stress and Hardship Trigger Misconduct, suggest he has plenty of company. More than 4 in 10 respondents (41%) observed inappropriate behavior in the workplace in 2022, an uptick from 35% in 2021, according to the report, which polled more than 1500 physicians about inappropriate behavior on and off the clock.

Of course, 38% of respondents have not seen any instances of misbehavior; and many of the instances that were seen were mild or infrequent. Additionally, instances of bad behavior have declined significantly over the past 5 years.

Freedman said he learned a lesson from his mentor and program director during training that has stuck with him throughout his career. "If you couldn't act that way at any job, whether at McDonald's or any other possible place, you shouldn't act that way in medicine." But he recognizes one limitation of that advice. "A lot of the people that behave badly may not have ever worked in a different environment before," he said.

"They only perceive that they're at the top of the food chain, so they can behave badly without repercussions."

What Freedman described is formally called disruptive physician behavior, one of several categories of inappropriate behavior in medicine, according to Charles Samenow, MD, MPH, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, who has studied this phenomenon for years.

"Disruptive physician behavior compromises the safety of the workplace," Samenow explained. The behavior can occur at work, outside of work, or on social media. It can hinder operations, threaten patient and staff safety, and affect workplace morale.

"The question is trying to understand where that bad behavior is coming from and the impact of that bad behavior," Samenow told Medscape.

One reason is fairly simple: doctors are human, and humans have a wide range of behavior. Plus, as Medscape's survey showed, the tension, stress, dangerous conditions during COVID, burnout, and other problems have made many physicians tired, frustrated, depressed, and more reactive to situations around them.

Self-selecting Traits Become an Achilles Heel

"Any human put in a position of power over other humans has the potential to be disruptive, harass, etc, if they have certain personality traits," David Gorski, MD, a professor of surgery at Wayne State University School of Medicine, said. That jibes with Samenow's research.

Classic disruptive behavior isn't usually associated with depression, mania, psychosis, or similar characteristics, Samenow explains. Rather, it tends to be personality driven. "Physicians are not immune to the normal problems every human being faces," he says.

In Medscape's report, physicians cited personal arrogance as one of the leading reasons physicians engaged in inappropriate behavior (56%), followed closely by personal problems outside of work (52%), a social shift in accepting more casual behavior (50%), and job-related stress (46%). (Respondents could choose more than one answer).

One factor contributing to misbehavior that Samenow has consistently identified in his research is a history of adverse childhood experiences or family dysfunction: people who grew up in homes with physical or verbal abuse learned anger as a coping skill instead of positive, assertive communication. It's likely that some physicians, as well as the overall population, learned anger as a coping skill for that reason.

How to Help Avert Disruptive Behavior in Medical Settings

Samenow says that coaching is a "wonderful tool" in teaching the interpersonal skills that medical school often doesn't address.

In some case, interventions can be very helpful. For example, programs that teach effective communication strategies and teamwork through a combination of culturally sensitive dialectical and cognitive-behavioral therapy and other modalities have been successful, Samenow said. Although they are more about treating an illness than addressing "misbehavior," programs for substance use that have been developed by and for doctors are very effective, too.

Fewer resources are available, however, for addressing racism, classism, misogyny, and other forms of bigotry, Samenow noted. "There's implicit bias training, but not at the level of what exists for disruptive physicians and those with addiction. "That's an area we need to work on." Racist language was the third most commonly observed bad behavior cited in the Medscape survey, behind only bullying of staff and mocking or disparaging of patients. It was reported frequently outside of work as well.

The Medscape report found an increase in observed behavior at work and on social media, although it's hard to determine prevalence trends over time, Samenow says. "The tolerance for this behavior has really gone down," likely leading to more reporting, he said, and more systems for reporting bad behavior exist today than in the past.

However, Freedman said inadequate regulation, disciplinary action, and follow-through remain a problem.

"There are lots of limitations to our reporting system and to our follow-through with those reports," including hospitals that, whether for fear of litigation or other reasons, allow physicians to quietly resign and move to another institution, even with positive recommendations, Freedman said.

Indeed, only a third of observed misbehavior in the Medscape report resulted in disciplinary action. Half the respondents believed a verbal warning was a necessary consequence, followed by a conversation from management and being reported to a supervisor or human resources. Though only 10% thought a report to the medical board was warranted, it likely depends on the offense and its frequency.

"I think going from paternalism to more patient-centered care and having patients involved in those conversations is a nice shift that makes doctors more human and relatable, and hopefully makes the public more forgiving, that we're going to make mistakes and nobody's perfect," Freedman said. But he added that physicians should be held accountable when a mistake or two becomes a pattern.

Misinformation Is Professional Misconduct

Sufficient accountability is especially absent, these doctors said, for a subset of professional misconduct: spreading misinformation.

While more "conventional" bad behaviors include fraud, dishonesty, abuse of underlings, and incompetence, bad behavior should also include "selling quackery and antivaccine misinformation, the way some doctors did with various nostrums for COVID-19....," said Gorski, who frequently blogs about doctors' spreading misinformation.

Taylor Nichols, MD, an emergency medicine physician based in Sacramento, cites the desire for attention and clout as motivations. "Saying things that are wildly, provably false is professional misconduct," Nichols said. He distinguished such statements from scientific, academic, or clinical disagreement that is necessary within medicine.

Yet there's been a "long tradition of looking the other way or letting people with fancy titles get away with saying nonsense just because they're respected," Jonathan Howard, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine, told Medscape.

"We have a duty to be trusted members of the community," Howard said. "People listen when we say things, and we have an obligation to try to be accurate and humble and as honest as possible and admit mistakes when we inevitably make them."

That extends to social media, which Nichols said has magnified the problem of promoting quackery and misinformation. He thinks medical boards and professional credentialing bodies should pay attention to what's happening in the public conversation and understand that our professional responsibility extends beyond the walls of the hospital or clinic. Physicians must represent themselves professionally and uphold the standards that the profession expects.

On the one hand, Medscape respondents agreed: 70% said one doctor's misbehavior taints the whole profession. Yet, at the same time, 58% of respondents believed physicians should be able to "keep their private lives private" in 2022. But that's not the reality of the profession when the lines between private life and behavior away from work get blurred, Samenow said.

"The way a physician behaves in public represents you," he said. "What happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas...."

Tara Haelle is a Dallas-based health and science journalist. Follow her at @tarahaelle.

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