24 Nov 2017

Bullying in the spotlight: 'She just lost her rag'

5:50 pm on 24 November 2017

Cardiology has been revealed as the speciality area in which most bullying occurs in a medical setting.

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Photo: 123RF

Research by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists shows more than a third of senior doctors and dentists working in public health say they have been bullied and more than two-thirds have seen someone else being bullied.

Bullying behaviour ranged from violence, threats and intimidation through to humiliation, persistent criticism, allegations, gossip, exclusion and excessive monitoring at work.

The association's principal analyst Charlotte Chambers told the senior doctors' conference in Wellington that stereotypes of what was expected of a surgeon were very ingrained in the profession.

Dr Chambers related an anecdote about a female surgeon who wondered why, for three years, nursing staff had disregarded her preference for the way her surgical instruments were set out.

"One time she just lost her rag and she behaved like a bully and she said to the charge nurse, 'why do you always do this to me? Why don't you get my male colleagues' implements wrong?'"

"And the response was 'because they yell and scream at us'."

"And she said, 'would you really like me to behave like a bully, because I am quite close to that point'."

'If they actually complain their training may be affected'

Waikato's District Health Board was in the top five for bullying and a former employee, Alison Barrett, said it became so bad in the obstetrics department that it lost its accreditation for training junior doctors.

She had heard the same stories over and over again from midwives, patients and younger doctors, of senior staff shouting at them, belittling them or using racial slurs.

Dr Barrett said that kind of bullying could have devastating effects on people, but the hierarchical structure of medicine meant young doctors felt they could not speak out about it.

"If they actually complain their training may be affected, they may not get promoted or be put on a training scheme, so it's a little bit like the emperor's new clothes; not wanting to tell the emperor what's really going on."

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Surprisingly, retired surgeon John MacDonald put his hand up at the conference and outed himself as a bully, saying it happened as a result of the stress of carrying out operations.

Dr MacDonald said if you were a bully you had to be able to take what you dished out and he admitted to having also been 'given hell' by nurses from time to time.

He was applauded when he suggested a support programme be started for health system bullies.

"Is there a place for a type of AA mechanism to help it? I suspect there's a lot of other people in this room who could get up and say, 'I'm a bully' too".

"How many of us are prepared to stand up, say it and help from that point of view to try and solve the problem."

Otago psychiatrist Chris Wisely suggested that bullying in the medical profession could be a reflection of the large amount of it prevalent in the wider society.

Some victims of workplace bullying that he had treated had experienced that behaviour for a lifetime, starting in their schooldays, he said.

"I'm seeing them, sometimes decades down the track, and the impact of that is phenomenal, that annihilation of character."

"We've got a massive systemic problem in this country and the cyber-bullying has taken off and is completely out of control."

Many of those at the bullying session agreed the stress of working in medicine played a large role in the behaviour.

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