Tell me about yourself and what you do.
I’m a physician. I also have an MBA. I still do a clinical practice in internal medicine a couple of days a week. I do a lot of consulting work around care management.
One of my other positions is being medical director for a company called Physician Wellness Services, which is in Minneapolis, although most of my career has been involved on getting physicians around best practice care.
You’ve done a lot of work with disruptive physician behavior. How is that defined or evidenced?
I got into this as vice president and medical director for the VHA West Coast. We would always look at how we could help the medical directors focus on the issues that they think are important. The usual span of issues are quality of care, cost of care, and physician relationships with the hospital.
I started noting that they were putting down disruptive behavior as one of their key issues. This really got exacerbated during the nursing shortage. That’s when I started the original survey on what is disruptive behavior? Are you witnessing it? Who’s doing it? Where is it occurring? That led to all the research about how significant an issue it is and then what we can do about it.
We describe disruptive behavior as any inappropriate behavior that can negatively impact patient care. That’s the simplest definition.
When you look at other professions, are physicians more likely to be disruptive, or it just more easily perceived because of the work environment they practice in?
It’s a combination of both. There are certain personality traits that lead people to go to medical school. It’s very competitive. They’re very ego-centric. During the medical school process, you’re taught very autocratic, independent, autonomous types of behavior. Physicians give orders. There is that personality that’s built in.
Healthcare is a very hierarchical system. Physicians are on top of the totem pole. They’ve usually had their free way in giving orders and not taking any responsibility for their actions, although their actions are really aimed at best patient care.
That in combination with the fact it’s a really stressful environment. In fact, if you look at where disruptive behaviors occur most frequently, it’s in either stressful areas — such as surgery, the emergency room, or OB — or in very stressful situations where the patient is having a negative outcome or the severity is increasing and they’re taking a turn for the worse and the physician needs to get involved. Sometimes they don’t do that in the most cordial manner.
In my experience , physicians who staff perceive as problematic and prone to explosive tempers are often respectful to their patients and even have great bedside manner.
I’m not sure they have great bedside manner with the patients. I think their intent is 100 percent, “I want to do the best for you, and in a crisis situation, I’m the one who knows best and I really need to take control.” That’s all appropriate, but many of these physicians are not good.
in our research and others, we’ve shown that three to five percent of physicians — and nurses, actually — are truly disruptive. This can have a significant impact on the organization. But what we also found is that 40 to 45 percent of them are ineffective communicators. If you go back to that medical school, you’re trained in technology, you’re trained in knowledge competency, but you’re not trained in personal skill development.
Now with healthcare being so complex, there’s many physicians in on a case, many other providers who are not physicians. The physician needs to better communicate and coordinate with them and also to present it effectively to the patient.
I’m not sure that they have the best bedside manner, but they certainly are doing it with the intent of, “I need to take control.”
Is that behavior rewarded more readily for certain specialties, like cardiothoracic surgeons versus pediatricians?
Why do people act disruptively? First of all, many people act disruptively and they don’t even know they’re doing it because they don’t understand the downstream effect. A lot of the research has shown there’s a significant downstream effect where patient care is actually compromised.
They’re acting disruptively because they need to take control. They feel like they need to give the orders and get the best patient outcome. They’re doing it to try to provide best patient care, but they don’t realize what they’re doing or how it’s impacting, or most importantly, the long-term impact of what they’ve done.
Eventually it gets to the point where you antagonize a person so much … in the short term, they’ll hopefully do what you’re asking them to do, but moving further down after the crisis, they don’t want to communicate with you any more. These communication gaps lead to problems with the patient outcomes of care.
Does medical training encourage or at least support disruptive behavior? Do you see that changing as newer generations of practitioners emerge who have been trained more as a team member rather than a single player?
Yes, absolutely. What we’re finding right now in medical schools is that they’re beginning to realize how important personal skills, communication skills, and teamwork skills are.
Three things are happening. One is the MCAT, which is the Medical College Admission Test. They’re now posing more questions on the humanities, not just math and science. Two, as far as the people who are majoring, they used to major in chemistry or biology, now they’re looking for people who major in sociology and philosophy. Three, and most importantly, a lot of the more progressive medical schools are beginning to teach communication, collaboration, and personal skills during the freshman year of medical school to get away from this autocratic or independent behavior.
For physicians trained under that different model that no longer applies, it must be difficult when hospitals are acquiring practices, exercising more control in ACO-type arrangements, and mandating use of EHR systems that impose standardized care guidelines and require doctors to document themselves in ways that don’t benefit them. Does that feeling of loss of control elicit disruptive behavior?
Absolutely. One of the things that I talk about is why do people behave the way they do. I talk about the internal things. Age — those different values and attitudes based on your age and your generation. There are gender differences between men and women in how they view stress and how they handle stress. There are differences from culture and ethnicity, power, issues related to gender, issues related to dominance. Then there’s all the stuff from your life, upbringing, what you’ve been exposed to.
Those are the internal factors. Those can be addressed, maybe by sensitivity training or communication skills training.
The external events — one of them you hit on — is from healthcare reform and initiatives and the electronic medical record. There’s now more and more pressure on providers, not just physicians, to be able to demonstrate and document good value care based on what other people think, not necessarily what they think. More adherence to guidelines telling you what you can and you cannot do. Taking people away from the bedside, spending more and more time on fulfilling all the requirements of the documentation. That gets everybody very frustrated because they just want to practice good care.
One of the key concerns right now is the significant amount of stress, burnout, and frustration that’s hitting our physician workforce as well as others. A lot of them are trying to change jobs, get out of the profession, or retire early. That’s a real issue right now, because we are — if not currently, tomorrow — going to have a workforce shortage.
One of the things that organizations need to do as they acquire physician practices and as they get them to adhere and be compliant with their protocols, their electronic medical record — they have to work with them to help them bring them up as a precious resource and not tell them, “This is what you have to do or else.”
What tips would you have for CIOs and CMIOs on the most constructive way to deal with physicians, especially those who have a reputation of being disruptive or resistant?
On the global level, physicians needs to understand why you’re asking them to do certain things. You need to raise the business case of why reducing variation and improving efficiency is going to get you the best patient outcome. That’s what you really want in the end, whether it’s a quality issue, whether it’s a cost issue, or whether it’s a satisfaction issue. Our goal is to make the patients get the best value out of a healthcare interaction and no one, no matter where they’re coming from, is going to say that’s not an appropriate goal. So you need to set the business case.
The second thing is you need to talk about what protocols and what enhancements you have, either technological or care management, and explain to them why we’re doing this — the idea that you reduce variation, we’re trying to do best-practice care, this will give you the best practice outcome.
The most important thing is they want us to sit down and talk to them and listen. One of the frustrations from physicians is, “I have a concern, I have a problem, I have an issue, but no one is taking the time to talk to me about what my individual concerns are.”
One of the key steps is that you need to sit down and talk to the physicians and find out what their resistance is based on what their barriers are. If you can potentially address some of those barriers, that’s something that the organization really needs to do.
The last piece is that besides the business case and the support, you want to provide ongoing training. When you implement or you go live, make sure that you have these work groups that are readily available to help the physician get through what they really need to get through.
Pushback against systems like CPOE seems to have lessened. Are people learning how to deal more constructively with physicians or are physicians just resigned that they have to do it?
A combination of both. People are being resigned. Remember, for physicians, it’s not just the inpatient record, it’s also the office record. With Meaningful Use and with billing, you need to get into the electronic, so there is a business reason for them. I think the technology is there.
Certainly with the newer physicians who were brought up on technology, this is not an issue. It’s mostly the physicians who have been in practice for 20 to 30 years. They’re very used to their ways of doing things and don’t understand why they need to change. With the growing need that everybody is going to have to be up and running on electronic medical records, the physicians are recognizing that this is something they really need to participate in.
The organizations do realize this, and as they implement these new medical records, they are very concerned about getting them on board and doing the appropriate training.
Do you have any final thoughts?
Part of it is the electronic medical record and part of it is the way the physicians behave. Physicians are a precious resource. I really do believe that all they really want to do is to do their job. Everything seems to get in the way, and some of those things are right.
Reducing variation, improving efficiency and productivity, and maximizing best patient outcomes is an absolute right thing to do. But I think organizations need to recognize that physicians are frustrated, they’re angry, they’re burned out, and they’re stressed. They need to spend more time in working with the physicians to prevent the inappropriate and truly disruptive behaviors, which can have a profound, negative impact on the organization.