Disruptive Behaviors of Medical Professionals Injure Patients

As patients, we trust medical professionals to act as, well, professionals. With lives quite literally on the line, we assume that doctors will take their obligations seriously and adhere to the highest standards of professional responsibility.

Unfortunately, as a new report by the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority (PPSA) indicates, this trust is sometimes misplaced. In far too many cases, doctors put patient health and safety at risk through unprofessional behavior. According to the report, the PPSA found 177 incidents of “disruptive behavior” in the state over a period of 31 months.

For example, the report describes an episode where a primary surgeon stormed out of an operating room in the midst of an operation, leaving an assistant to complete the surgery.

In another situation, the doctor refused to follow the standard anesthesia procedure. Although others warned that the topical anesthesia required 30 minutes to take effect, the doctor insisted on performing the procedure prematurely.

In these and other incidents, patients were exposed to risks or unnecessary discomfort simply because their medical caregivers failed to behave professionally. More than 60 percent of these events arose in operating rooms, medical/surgical units and intensive care units — arguably, the places where patients need the most attentive care.

What causes these situations? According to the PPSA, many of these episodes arise because of conflicts between doctors and nurses, and a medical culture that holds doctors’ opinions and the wishes of high-ranking staff members in greater regard than those of others. Stated simply, doctors can get away with the behaviors and other staff members are too afraid to express concerns or are ignored when they do.

This is unacceptable. As the PPSA notes, one way to reduce these disruptive events is to change the culture. Employees at all levels must be free to express their concerns, and legitimate concerns must be acknowledged.

Additionally, hospitals must simply not tolerate this type of disruptive behavior. A zero-tolerance policy would go a long way toward preventing these incidents; few will behave with such blatant disregard for patient safety if a single outburst is grounds for termination.