Bullies in white coats? ‘Too many’ health care workers experience toxic workplaces, studies show

Laura

Some bullies wear white coats, new research reveals.

While health care workers aim to treat their patients with compassion, empathy and respect, a significant number don’t follow those same ideals when working with each other, according to an article published recently by Massachusetts General Hospital.

Christine Porath, Ph.D, an expert in unprofessional workplace behavior who’s quoted in the article, told Fox News Digital this week that based on her research, “Too many health care workers and physicians are treated disrespectfully.”

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And “we’ve found that the majority don’t report it, often out of a sense of fear or hopelessness,” she added.

Porath has studied disrespectful behavior at work in nearly two dozen industries, including in the health care field, and is a professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business; she’s also a consultant who advises leading organizations on how to create thriving workplaces.

“Too many health care workers and physicians are treated disrespectfully” by others within the workplace, an expert in behavior told Fox News Digital. 
(iStock)

In a piece she wrote for Harvard Business Review in November 2022 in which she also shared her research, she said incivility at work is “defined as rudeness, disrespect or insensitive behavior.” 

For over 20 years, she’s polled “hundreds of thousands of people worldwide about their experiences.”

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Bad behavior in the workplace is on the rise due to a number of factors, said Porath, the author of the 2022 book, “Mastering Community: The Surprising Ways Coming Together Moves Us from Surviving to Thriving.”

Those factors include stress from the COVID pandemic; today’s economic downturn; the ongoing war in Ukraine; a poor sense of community; negative emotions; an increase in the use of technology; and a lack of self-awareness. 

Of those surveyed, 76% of the people said they experience incivility in the workplace at least once a month. 

Her recent survey on the issue involved over 2,000 people in more than 25 industries globally, including frontline workers. It revealed that 76% of respondents experience — and 78% actually witness — incivility at work at least once a month.

A 2022 Medscape survey of more than 1,500 physicians found that 86% of those physicians had witnessed or experienced bullying or harassment by clinicians or staff in the past five years.

A 2022 Medscape survey of more than 1,500 physicians found that 86% of those physicians had witnessed or experienced bullying or harassment by clinicians or staff in the past five years.
(iStock)

Porath isn’t the only one who has found issues in health care fields.

A 2022 Medscape survey of more than 1,500 physicians found that 86% of those physicians had witnessed or experienced bullying or harassment by clinicians or staff in the past five years.

And 15% of respondents said those individuals behaved poorly during the last year.

Health care and social service workers were five times more likely to experience workplace violence than all other workers. 

Also, health care and social service workers were five times more likely to experience workplace violence than all other workers, according to incidence data from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018. 

The Joint Commission, which accredits more than 22,000 U.S. health care organizations and programs nationally, revised the workplace requirements for “workplace violence” last year. 

To combat bullying, harassment and other highly inappropriate and unwelcome behavior in the workplace, one medical school professor said more is needed beyond just "awareness building and punitive measures."

To combat bullying, harassment and other highly inappropriate and unwelcome behavior in the workplace, one medical school professor said more is needed beyond just “awareness building and punitive measures.”
(iStock)

Incidents of “workplace violence” may include “verbal, nonverbal, written or physical aggression; threatening, intimidating, harassing or humiliating words or actions; bullying; sabotage; sexual harassment; physical assaults; or other behaviors of concern involving staff, licensed practitioners, patients or visitors,” the Joint Commission noted in its guidelines that became effective Jan. 1, 2022.

‘Purposeful change’ needed

Dr. Pamela S. Douglas, a professor at Duke School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, told Fox News Digital that confronting the issue of inappropriate behavior in the health care workplace should involve more than just “awareness building and punitive measures.”

“The only viable long-term solution is purposeful cultural change through a system-wide approach,” she said.

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It “requires sustained leadership and [a] commitment of organizational resources,” she added.

The investigation into the complaint revealed a pattern of unprofessional behavior from the specialist.

Dr. Gerald Hickson, founding director of The Vanderbilt Center for Patient and Professional Advocacy (CPPA) in Nashville, Tennessee, told Fox New Digital about a recent report he published that involved a professionalism complaint.

A newly recruited specialist ate a nurse’s apple without that nurse’s permission. “I was between cases, and I was hungry,” the doctor noted, according to the report. 

“What I can’t believe is the nurse entered [an expletive] safety report and YOU have some group of minions wondering around sharing them,” the same doctor also said, the report noted. “This is unbelievable.”

The specialist's actions ranged from criticizing a nurse in front of a patient, to asking someone in training to "stop asking stupid questions," to refusing to participate in a "time-out" before a procedure began.

The specialist’s actions ranged from criticizing a nurse in front of a patient, to asking someone in training to “stop asking stupid questions,” to refusing to participate in a “time-out” before a procedure began.
(iStock)

The investigation into the complaint revealed a pattern of unprofessional behavior from this specialist.

The specialist’s actions ranged from criticizing a nurse in front of a patient, to asking someone in training to “stop asking stupid questions,” to refusing to participate in a “time out” before a procedure began.

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For 25 years, Hickson’s organization “has partnered with hospitals in the U.S., now over 200 sites, in conducting research and developing tools and defining processes to identify and intervene to support the 2.5% to 4% of our professional workforce who model disrespect and threaten outcomes of care,” Hickson noted. 

Consequences of the behavior

Unprofessional behavior can have ripple effects on patient care.

It can also cause psychological distress, job dissatisfaction, encourage workers to call in sick and result in high turnover of staff, according to the Joint Commission.

“As a medical student, I encountered a senior resident who modeled classic bullying behavior directed toward learners.”

“Patients who receive care from physicians who model disrespect for other team members and patients and families are more likely to experience avoidable medical and surgical complications and death,” Hickson noted.

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Dr. Kellie Lease Stecher is president and co-founder of Patient Care Heroes — a platform that advocates for change within the culture of medicine and aims to tell the stories of health care workers who have sacrificed their lives for their profession.

Based in Minneapolis, Stecher told Fox News Digital, “Medical school is where it starts — the toxic medical culture, gossip, bullying and so much more.” 

One doctor still remembers how poorly a supervisor treated him many years ago. This individual "declared to us that one day we would thank him for the lessons he taught," the doctor said. 

One doctor still remembers how poorly a supervisor treated him many years ago. This individual “declared to us that one day we would thank him for the lessons he taught,” the doctor said. 
(iStock)

Dr. Mikkael Sekeres, chief of the division of hematology of Sylvester Cancer Center at the University of Miami, remembers his own experience later in training.

“During my hematology/oncology fellowship, I would estimate that two-thirds of my class of trainees exhibited signs of burnout or frank depression,” Sekeres told Fox News Digital. 

“Nothing was done to address the psychological well-being of the trainees.”

“This would be manifested as anger toward patients or other health care providers, sleeplessness issues, problems in relationships and a pervasive cynicism,” added Sekeres, who’s also the author of the book “Drugs and the FDA: Safety, Efficacy, and the Public’s Trust.”

“Nothing was done to address the psychological well-being of the trainees,” he recalled. “Many have since left patient care, and the profession, entirely.”

Hickson of Nashville still recalls to this day the way one of his superiors treated him in training so many years ago.

“As a medical student, I encountered a senior resident who modeled classic bullying behavior directed toward learners,” said Hickson. 

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“And [this individual] declared to us that one day we would thank him for the lessons he taught.”

He added, “I did learn several valuable lessons — but they were about how intimidating behavior threatens team performance and contributes to medical errors.”

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