17 Aug 2017

Bullying found to be rife for emergency doctors

11:59 am on 17 August 2017

Nearly half of all emergency doctors and trainees report being bullied, discriminated against, or sexually harassed by their colleagues while on the job, a report shows.

Hospital hallway, doctor, nurse, file pic, generic

Photo: 123RF

A survey by the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM), across Australia and New Zealand, found one in three had been bullied, one in five had experienced discrimination and 6 percent had been sexually harassed.

Read the full report: Discrimination, Bullying and Sexual Harassment (PDF, 259KB)

The report also showed half the respondents believed reporting the behaviour would have negative consequences, especially for their career.

Reports of abusive behaviour, broken down by gender.

Reports of abusive behaviour, broken down by gender, as recorded in the survey. Photo: Australasian College for Emergency Medicine

Waikato Hospital emergency department head John Bonning, who is also the New Zealand faculty chair for ACEM, said he was deeply shocked by the findings.

"It was very, very disappointing and it made me feel terrible to read some of those personal stories of some of the impact that some of this behaviour has had on our members," he said.

Some quotes from the survey:

  • "I was bullied by a colleague at work after disagreeing with him. He publicly humiliated me on several occasions in front of patients and colleagues."
  • "Yelled at in front of patients and colleagues and then taken to an empty corridor and yelled at some more. Told that I had to do anything the consultant asked me to do."
  • "Ongoing, severe, daily bullying by consultant body in previous job. Being put down, told I was incompetent without evidence or advice as to how to rectify it, being belittled and screamed at in front of patients and staff, being told I was unsuitable for emergency medicine and that I should quit the training programme."
  • For women, the situation was often worse, with 56 percent reporting some form of abuse:

  • "I was told not to apply for a resident job if I was planning on getting pregnant."
  • "... Asking during job interviews if I plan on falling pregnant this term. Being told at the start of my training as an advanced trainee that as a female of child-bearing age we 'should all put our eggs on ice' if we want to get through training."

The behaviour was unacceptable, yet all too common across all hospital departments, Dr Bonning said.

"The perpetrators are emergency specialists in a little over 50 percent of the cases, but other speciality consultants, physicians, surgeons, etc, in around about 30 percent of the cases.

"Other speciality registrars sort of 10 percent, and even nurses are perpetrators, in between 11 and 17 percent," he said.

He said he hoped making the survey results public would be cathartic: both by highlighting the problem, and by showing the college took it seriously.

The college's president, Tony Lawler, said it was clear there was a lot of work to do.

"Every health professional has a right to work in a safe, supportive workplace free of harassment. Bullying and discrimination of any kind have no place in emergency medicine," Prof Lawler said in a message to members.

Senior Doctors Association executive director Ian Powell was not surprised by the high levels of bullying, and said it could be a symptom of doctors struggling to cope with their workloads.

"Public hospitals are under intense pressure, they tend to be underresourced. The demand on them is significant.

"Often when you have hospitals with dysfunctional leadership at the top, all those provide an environment conducive to bullying," he said.

Dr Bonning said he did not want to appear to be making excuses, but emergency departments had become more and more stressful recently.

The survey was the latest in a series to reveal complaints of bullying in hospitals.

The Ministry of Health said it was aware of the problem and had already set up a working group of specialist associations, universities, the medical council and district health boards.

The college's survey of its members was carried out between April and May and about 44 percent (2121 from a total of 4817) responded, with 260 of those respondents from New Zealand.

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