July 14, 2024

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Surgeons Most Likely to Behave Unprofessionally: Study

3 min read

Most doctors mind their manners. But surgeons are the most likely to be reported for unprofessional behavior, while physicians practicing in pediatric settings are the least likely, according to a recent study of more than 35,000 physicians.

The research, published on June 6 in JAMA Network Open, found that fewer than 10% of physicians were reported by their coworkers for at least one instance of unprofessional behavior, and only 1% showed a pattern of such reports.

Data were gathered from the Center for Patient and Professional Advocacy’s (CPPA’s) Coworker Observation Reporting System (CORS) program, a national collaborative in which 193 participating hospitals and practice sites file safety-event reports involving medical workers’ unprofessional behaviors. An algorithm that weights CORS reports based on recency and severity was used to analyze the data. The study was spearheaded by William O. Cooper, MD, MPH, director of the CPPA at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee.

The retrospective cohort study included deidentified data on credentialed physicians, not including residents or fellows, who practiced at a CORS site between 2018 and 2022.

Why Surgeons?

The authors speculated that the reason surgeons were reported for unprofessional behavior more often than their colleagues in nonsurgical specialties was because surgery is a more stressful environment than other specialties and requires more teamwork, resulting in more interactions during high-stakes events.

Daniel Katz, MD, professor and vice chair of education for the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City, added that part of the problem is that surgeons are expected to perform at very high levels all the time.

“When things that are outside the control of the surgeon don’t go well,” Katz said, “that can lead to increased frustration and negative emotions, which will then bring out these kinds of behaviors.”

Types of Unprofessional Behaviors

The most common out-of-bounds behaviors reported involved disrespectful communication or lack of professional responsibility. In one example, a physician called a coworker a “bossy cow” when the coworker reminded the physician of the need to do a time out before beginning a bronchoscopy.

In another case involving professional responsibility, a coworker asked a physician if the team should wait for a disoriented patient’s spouse to arrive. The doctor’s response: “We’ll be here all night if we do that. If you won’t sign as a witness, I’ll get someone else who will.”

The least common reports involved unprofessionalism related to medical care or professional integrity. One cited a physician removing a foley catheter without wearing gloves and having visible urine on his hands and not washing them before touching other things in the room. In a reported lapse of professional integrity, a physician billed at level five after spending only 4 minutes with a patient.

Impact of Unprofessional Behavior

Unprofessional behavior among physicians is more than just unpleasant. It can threaten the functioning of teams and increase patient complications. In addition, individuals who model unprofessional behaviors are associated with increased malpractice claims, the study’s authors wrote.

Katz agreed that unprofessional behavior is damaging to both patients and the profession as a whole.

However, this doesn’t happen because some doctors are bad, he said. Physicians today are working in a pressure cooker. The current healthcare environment, with its increased administrative burdens, lack of staffing, and other problems, has increased the overall level of stress and led to burnout among healthcare personnel.

“You have to fix the system to create a working environment that doesn’t cause somebody to explode,” Katz said.

The goal of the CORS program and this study, Cooper said, is to help physicians better weather these stresses.

Study Limitations

The authors noted some weaknesses in the study. Some unprofessional behavior may go unreported because of fear of retaliation or for other reasons victims or witnesses did not feel safe to report their colleague. Also, reports were not evaluated to ensure the truth of the accusations. The records reviewed did not include the gender of the physician, though the researchers pointed out that previous studies have shown that women are less likely than men to receive CORS reports.


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