Is Your Doctor Bullying You?

Discover how bullying doctors impact patient care

Couple discussing healthcare with a doctor
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Most people assume that as we grow older, bullies begin to disappear from our lives. But research has shown that some bullies never put aside their overbearing ways. Instead, they continue to intimidate, manipulate and abuse people well into adulthood. After all, bullying works for them, so there is no motivation to change. What's more, adult bullies can be found in almost every area of life. Even the medical field is not immune to having bullies among its ranks.

How a Doctor’s Bullying Impacts You

Confrontational and abusive healthcare providers make appointments and procedures extremely unpleasant and sometimes even dangerous for their patients. For instance, doctors who bully often undermine communication between the rest of the healthcare team. This can lead to you receiving unnecessary treatments as well as even having surgeries that may not even be needed.

In fact, research has shown that doctors who are bullies often discourage communication. This, in turn, has a negative effect on the quality of care you receive. For example, a study conducted by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP) found that 40 percent of healthcare providers didn’t voice their concerns about a patient’s medication because to do so would require them to question an overbearing doctor.

That same study also found that bullying behavior is prevalent in the healthcare system.

In fact, 60 percent of clinicians said they have experienced verbal bullying. Meanwhile, 50 percent reported having to confront intimidating body language. Likewise, some patients are regularly intimidated by their physicians. As a result, they are less likely to disagree or to speak up for fear of making the doctor angry.

Consequently, bullied patients are often reluctant to share troubling symptoms or ask questions about their prescriptions, especially if their doctor has a short fuse or regularly becomes irritated or impatient.

Be Careful Not to Label Every Outburst Bullying

When it comes to dealing with patients, most doctors go to great lengths to maintain a pleasant bedside manner. But sometimes it can be difficult to remain positive and upbeat. For instance, it is no secret that healthcare providers are overworked. They are often tired and stressed, which can make them cranky and lead to less than desirable behavior.

Uncooperative patients also can try a doctor's patience especially if the patient is not taking his professional advice seriously or following the agreed upon treatment plan. And patients who self-diagnose or believe they know more than the doctor, can put a strain on the doctor-patient relationship. While building a rapport with your doctor is important, some patients take this concept too far and become demanding. All of these things can lead a doctor to be grouchy and abrupt.

But before you label your doctor a bully, remember that bullying exists when there is a pattern to the behavior.

In other words, if your doctor has only been rude or short with you once, this is more likely an isolated incident and you can chalk it up to a bad day. His mean behavior becomes bullying when you receive persistent insults, criticisms, and other actions that exert power and control over you.

Remember, the doctor who is sometimes gruff is not truly a bully. He might be insensitive, seem overly rushed, get caught up in his own expertise or lack a patient-centered focus, but he does not always behave inappropriately. It is the doctors that regularly display mean and controlling behavior that you have to worry about.

Signs Your Doctor Is a Bully

While it is counterintuitive to find a bully in a helping profession, bullies do exist in the medical field. Here are some red flags that your doctor may be a bully:

  • Refuses to answer your questions or provide you with information about your condition. In other words, he expects you to follow his suggestions for treatment without any additional information and seems really put out if you ask questions. His expectation is that he is the expert and you should just take his word for it and do exactly as he says. Remember, you should always play a role in making healthcare decisions.
  • Intimidates and manipulates you into having examinations or procedures that you do not want to have without explanation as to why they are medically necessary. Remember, you have a right to refuse treatment. You are not required to give a physician absolute authority over your body.
  • Displays arrogant and self-righteous behavior. For instance, if you ask about his experience or expertise in a particular area, he is clearly insulted. What's more, he may even make a rude comment about how well-educated and experienced he is.
  • Lacks empathy. Some healthcare providers have a hard time displaying emotion when diagnosing a serious illness. However, this is not the same as showing a lack of empathy. Doctors who lack empathy or emotional intelligence, simply do not care that you are upset, worried or nervous. It will seem as if they do not even notice what you are feeling and if they do notice they do not care.
  • Does not respect your need for modesty or privacy. Most doctors will knock on the door before entering. They also will move your gown as little as possible to preserve your modesty while examining you. If your doctor barges into your room without knocking and does not respect your dignity, then he may be a bully. It also is a red flag if he fails to warn you of what he is about to do while examining you or if he leaves you in an exposed position.
  • Speaks condescendingly toward you. Doctors are well-educated and knowledgeable, but this does not give them the right to treat you like you are stupid. If your doctor talks down to you or does not speak respectfully, this could be a sign that he is a bully.
  • Handles you roughly. While it is true, there are some examinations and procedures that hurt, your doctor should still be sensitive to your comfort. He also should refrain from any unnecessary prodding. If your doctor regularly hurts you without explanation or apology, you may want to consider finding another healthcare provider.
  • Treats his nurses and assistants poorly. If a doctor's nurses, physician assistants, and support staff are nervous around him, this is a bad sign. A quality healthcare team should always have good communication among its team members. If the others involved in your care seem afraid to make a mistake, this could be detrimental to you in the long run. Remember, when medical teams do not exhibit mutual respect and open communication, in the end, you will be the one who suffers.

Regardless of how skilled your physician is, if he exhibits these traits on a regular basis, it may be time to find a new doctor. You deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and you should settle for nothing less.

A Word From Verywell

If you feel like your doctor is a bully to you or to a loved one, do not ignore the situation. Doing so could compromise the quality of care you receive. Instead, try talking to the doctor about his abusive conduct or take the matter to a supervisor. If standing up to the bully is not effective and he continues to intimidate you, it is time to find a new physician. If his behavior is severe, you may want to consider reporting his behavior to the state licensing board. Remember, just because your doctor may be an expert in his field does not give him the right to bully you.

"Intimidation Still a Problem in Hospital Workplace, ISMP Survey Show," Institute for Safe Medicine Practices, October 2013. https://www.ismp.org/pressroom/PR20131003.pdf

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