Ask the doctors and they’ll fess up: MD misbehavior occurs too often

docmisbehaviormedscape-300x179Patients may be reluctant to think ill of their doctors or to imagine that highly educated, rigorously trained professionals could mistreat or cause them harm. Doctors themselves know this picture is way too rosy for some of their colleagues.

In a survey of 1,500 practicing MDs, all of whom voluntarily responded to an online questionnaire, Medscape — a web-based medical news source — reported this information about doctor misconduct:

“Physicians tell us they’re seeing more frequent incidents of other doctors acting disrespectfully towards patients or coworkers, too casually about patient privacy, angrily or aggressively at work, and even sometimes criminally. Such behavior is still relatively uncommon, and many respondents say they are proud of the high standards of attitudes and behavior shown by fellow physicians.”

The incidence of physicians behaving inappropriately increased only slightly in 2022 over the year prior, with 41% of respondents saying they had seen such cases this year versus 35% in 2021. The most often cited misbehaviors, in order, included:

  • bullying or harassing clinicians/staff (witnessed by respondents 86% in the past five years and 30% in ’22);
  • making fun of or disparaging patients — unbeknownst to the patients (82% and 30%);
  • using racist language (55% and 9%);
  • bullying or harassing patients (45% and 5%);
  • and becoming physically aggressive with patients, clinicians, or staff (44% and 6%) Inebriation (43% and 4%).

Medscape reported that “doctors say they witnessed physicians mistreating other medical personnel, bullying, or harassing patients, and committing crimes more often than in last year’s report.

In anecdotal terms, respondents told of seeing MD-colleagues use racist language or act in discriminatory ways, as well as a new surgeon cursing nurses and techs and ejecting them from an operating room, and another male surgeon who was “repeatedly fondling the nurse’s breast with his elbow during procedures.”

Doctors surveyed called out their colleagues for “general personal arrogance,” and said MDs — like other humans — act out due to personal issues unrelated to work, job-related stress, as well as the pressure of practicing during the coronavirus pandemic and dealing with excessively demanding patients.

In dealing with bad-acting doctors, survey respondents said they should be reported to supervisors, hospital administrators, and disciplined in private or with letters in their personnel files. Few respondents thought that medical licensing authorities should be consulted.

And, while doctors expressed pride in the high standards of their profession and worried that poor performing outliers harmed the reputation of all MDs, a startling 68% of respondents “say they haven’t witnessed or experienced company or medical action for inappropriate public behavior by physicians,” Medscape reported, adding:

“Physician discipline in America long has been criticized for inconsistency. The percentage of doctors who are disciplined for misbehavior is four times higher in some states than in others, according to a University of Michigan study.”

In my practice, I not only see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the clear benefits they may enjoy by staying healthy and far away from the U.S. health care system. It is fraught with medical errorpreventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses. Patients also suffer far too many harms due to bankrupting and dangerous drugs

In pre-pandemic times, medical errors claimed the lives of roughly 685 Americans per day — more people than died of respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer’s. That estimate came from a team of researchers led by a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins. It meant that medical errors ranked as the third leading cause of death in the U.S., behind only heart disease and cancer. (The coronavirus, of course, has risen has a leading killer of Americans.)

Under pandemic duress, wrong determinations about patient conditions, no doubt, occurred, likely with greater frequency. Just to remind of further pre-pandemic research findings in this area:  Diagnostic errors affect an estimated 12 million Americans each year and likely cause more harm to patients than all other medical errors combined, studies have found. And misdiagnoses boost health costs through unnecessary tests, malpractice claims, and costs of treating patients who were sicker than diagnosed or didn’t have the diagnosed condition. Experts recently noted in a health care online report that inaccurate diagnoses waste upwards of $100 billion annually in the U.S.

Patients, as my partners as I know, must display enormous fortitude when they seek justice in the civil system for wrongs committed against them in medical care and to ensure bad things get corrected, so they do not happen to others. They also must seek financial redress for what may be major damages done to them and their lives, with patients often needing significant long-time or even lifetime support and medical care.

The vast majority of doctors are dedicated, competent, careful human beings. But a persistent slice of poor performers put patients and the medical profession at risk. Patients, doctors, nurses, hospitals, and all of us involved in health care in one way or another have much hard work ahead of us to speak up and put out of business dangerous doctors and to ensure that patients have safe, affordable, accessible, efficient, and excellent health care.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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