Diaries Magazine

When Nurses Write About Physician Bullies, Don’t Shoot the Messenger

By Torontoemerg

Theresa Brown has taken some heat for the op-ed she wrote for the New York Times last Sunday. When she wrote about her experiences being bullied by a physician and the detrimental effect bullying has on patient care, the reaction from MDs was angry and defensive. I am beginning to think, after reading though all the posts and comments, that her real sin was being a nurse challenging physician authority. Ford Vox, writing at The Atlantic took particular umbrage at a physician being called out at Brown’s work place. “Drawing and quartering your coworkers in the Sunday New York Times,” he wrote, might be run-of-the-mill for politicians. I’d like to see something better out of doctors and nurses.”  While making a very slight nod to the issue of  bullying behaviour among physicians, Vox’s principal objection to Brown’s article was the ethics of making an example of one particular physician; he went to an exceptional effort at demonstrating the physician could be identified — at least by his co-workers — by a Google search (and in the process outing Brown’s place of work, which at least one commenter construed as an act of bullying itself.)

Kevin Pho was somewhat more even-handed. But still, while acknowledging that bullying is a serious issue — which Vox trivializes as a “workplace spat” —  he accuses Brown acting in bad faith, of pandering to an anti-physician audience and “metaphorically” acting as a bully herself; he also engages in a tu quoque argument that nurses in general are bullies themselves. “Shouldn’t they [i.e. nurses],” he asks rhetorically, “bear some responsibility as well?” (Except that we do. Endlessly. Do physicians in the same way?)

The message, in any case, from our physician colleagues, is that nurses should shut up. We should not be airing our dirty linen in public. Any mention of physician bullying will only serve to exacerbate poor nurse-physician relations. It’s unfair to single out physicians. We aren’t bad actors ourselves, we treat nurses with the utmost respect, ergo, nurses should acknowledge the physician bully is a singular creature, as unique as a butterfly in a Toronto January. Et cetera.

I beg to differ.

I don’t think it’s quite true that physician bullying is rare and out of ordinary, even now, despite assertions to the contrary. When I thought about it, I realized without too much difficulty I could list dozens of examples of physician bullying, that I have been subjected to or witnessed, some dating from the dark ages of the late 1990s. These range from the utterly appalling — like the ED physician who unfairly and angrily blamed the primary RN for the death of a septic neonate, in front of the parents — to the half-humourous, some of which I have documented on this blog. I’m pretty sure nurses reading this could come up with a similar list.

Stating that some physicians bully, and that it is a more widespread problem than physicians themselves suppose, is not to take away from the respectful and collegial relationships I enjoy with the vast majority of the physicians I work with, but rather to address the reality of the complex power relationships in the hospital pecking order. It isn’t physician-bashing to point out the obvious. In any case both Vox and Pho ignore the central point in Brown’s piece: that when physicians bully, patient care suffers. It suffers because nurses are understandably reluctant to deal with a physician who will demean them. Who wants to call with a high blood sugar in the middle of the night, or question an inappropriate medication order, if you’re pretty sure you’re going to get reamed out in the process? It suffers because it’s a large factor in determining quality of nursing work life: poor nursing morale results in poor patient outcomes.

So there are some very good reasons to point out this behaviour out. Should have Brown been so specific, even if anonymously so? Both Vox and Pho complain vigorously about Brown’s lack of discretion in her account of the incident. My only thought is that their reaction is a bit over-dramatic, because the only people witnessing the inappropriate behaviour were the care team and the patient — and they don’t have to be told who the bully is. Further, I guess if Brown is as careful as most health care bloggers, she’s disguised the identity of the physician in question by changing details and artful misdirection so that it would be difficult for even employees of her institution to make identification. And I’ll add a small artistic quibble: a direct, concise, personal example is worth a thousand words of exposition. In the event, I’m not clear where the appropriate place would be to deal with it, except publicly and openly.

Bullying is an exceedingly frustrating issue for nurses, mostly because of the sense of powerlessness. When you’re subjected to the bullying, you feel like a target, and helpless to boot — and you can only respond with difficulty because the power relationships within the hospital hierarchy. In short, physician-bullies, like bullies everywhere, get away with it because they can. Nurses have been complaining about bad physician behaviour since Florence Nightingale disembarked at Scutari. You would think, that after 150-odd years of politely asking physicians to pull up their socks, they might take the issue to heart and engage in some real collective self-reflection on the issue.

It was encouraging to see this in a few of the comments to all the posts, amid all the palpable anger toward Brown. But she only put to words what every nurse knows. The physician reaction to complaints of inappropriate behaviour has always been to minimize, to scorn, to condescend, to trivialize, to redirect, or to deny. Kevin Pho points out, correctly, that hospitals are beginning to address the issue through workplace respect programs. But in all seriousness, how many physicians have actually been called to account in any meaningful way by these programs? Pho writes, in another post on the subject that, “My issue is Brown’s methods, by pitting a wronged nurse against arrogant doctors. It’s a narrative that physicians will lose 100% of the time, no matter how they respond.” True enough. But despite this, it’s also true that nearly 100% of the time bullying physician behaviour will go by without serious consequences. The question I would like to pose to both Vox and Pho — and all the angry physicians out there — is this: have you ever witnessed a physician bullying a nurse, and what did you do about it?

Their answer, I would guess, would be, “Yes, and nothing.” I would be gratified to hear otherwise.

So physicians, stop complaining. We’re merely pointing out bad behaviour. It’s up to you to fix it.


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