By Sandra G. Boodman
Kaiser Health News
At a critical point in a complex abdominal operation, a surgeon was handed a device that didn’t work because it had been loaded incorrectly by a surgical technician. Furious that she couldn’t use it, the surgeon slammed it down, accidentally breaking the technician’s finger. “I felt pushed beyond my limits,” recalled the surgeon, who was suspended for two weeks and told to attend an anger management course for doctors.
The 2011 incident illuminates a long-festering problem that many hospitals have been reluctant to address: disruptive and often angry behavior by doctors. Experts estimate that 3 to 5 percent of physicians engage in such behavior, berating nurses who call them in the middle of the night about a patient, flinging scalpels at trainees who aren’t moving fast enough, demeaning co-workers they consider incompetent or cutting off patients who ask a lot of questions.
“We’re talking about a very small number of physicians, but the ripple effect is profound,” said Charles Samenow, an assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University School of Medicine, who evaluates doctors with behavioral problems.
For generations, bad behavior by doctors has been explained away as an inevitable product of stress or tacitly accepted by administrators reluctant to take action and risk alienating the medical staff, particularly if the offending doctors generate a lot of revenue. Recently at one Virginia hospital, according to University of Virginia School of Nursing dean Dorrie Fontaine, a veteran operating-room nurse with 30 years’ experience walked into her supervisor’s office and quit after a surgeon screamed at her — his usual reaction to unwelcome news — when she told him that a routine count revealed that an instrument was missing. Hospital administrators shrugged off the episode, saying, “Well, that’s the way he is.”