How do you handle a bullying doctor?
Most nurses have witnessed or been the victims of doctor bullying. I know I have. What drives a clinician to fly off the handle and lose their temper?
It can be hard to explain an adult temper tantrum. When I envision a temper tantrum, I think of a 2-year-old lying on the floor, kicking and screaming. This behavior—outbursts of frustration—is a normal part of childhood development between the ages of 1 and 4 years. Children grow out of their temper tantrum behaviors as they learn how to express their feelings in a socially acceptable manner and exercise better control over their emotions.
Then why do we see cases of this behavior extend into adulthood? Adult temper tantrums can be verbal, physical, or both. For example, someone might shout, curse, slam doors, kick, or throw objects. Nurses need to understand that adult temper tantrums are the result of uncontrolled emotions, and not necessarily related to something they said or did.
As the nursing profession continues to take steps to reduce bullying and violence in the workplace, doctor’s temper tantrums have been added to the list of situations perceived as attempts to intimidate or bully a nurse or worse, an instance of workplace violence. Publications describe doctor bullying as jeopardizing nurses and patients. The media report stories of physicians berating nurses, hurling profanities, or even physically threatening or assaulting them. Nurses in the operating room describe doctors throwing stethoscopes, scissors, pens, or surgical instruments at them. In one story I read, the nurse described a surgeon yelling, “Are you stupid or something?” and hurling a bloody surgical sponge at him. Another story captured a nurse’s account of a surgeon throwing a scalpel at her and saying he was angry because she didn’t have a rare piece of equipment he needed. “He endangered me and several others by throwing a tantrum,” the nurse said.
Why is doctor bullying not better exposed? Nurses might be afraid to report a doctor’s behavior because they believe nothing will be done, they’re concerned they might lose their jobs in retaliation, or they fear the stigma of being perceived as a whistleblower. Don’t let fear define your work life. Instead, consider some of these actions:
- Reframe how you think about the doctor-nurse relationship. View it as a professional collegial one that deserves mutual respect and support.
- Remember that the outburst probably isn’t about you, but rather a reaction to frustration the doctor is experiencing at work or in their personal life.
- Don’t be intimidated. Calmly tell the doctor that their behavior isn’t professional and that you expect to be spoken to with respect.
- Follow your organization’s policy for reporting bullying behavior. Getting a handle on this issue requires that nurses report it appropriately.
- Contribute to a healthy work environment through your own actions and words. You and your physician colleagues all want to achieve the same goal: excellent patient care.
Through our individual actions and collective professional attitudes, temper tantrums—and projectile stethoscopes—can remain in the past where they belong.
Lillee Gelinas, DNP, RN, CPPS, FAAN
Robbins A. The Nurses: A Year of Secrets, Drama and Miracles with the Heroes of the Hospital. New York City, NY: Workman Publishing; 2016.