Bullying by Proxy: How Bullying in Hospitals Impacts all of Us

Bullying by Proxy: How Bullying in Hospitals Impacts all of Us

In my work with bullying issues, specifically with targets, I often meet with the target and those around her. They want to talk about what they have witnessed and how they feel traumatized and powerless by the bullying attacks on my client. This is fascinating to me and completely obvious.

Here is another form of the impact of bullying that I had not considered.

Bullying in Hospitals

Reports of bullying among doctors and other health care workers is well documented.

“In one survey of more than 4,500 health care workers, 77% reported disruptive behavior by doctors and 65% reported it among nurses. More than two-thirds said such behaviors led to medical errors; nearly one-third said they contributed to patient deaths. A smaller West Coast survey of labor and delivery nurse managers found disruptive behaviors were widespread and had contributed to “near-misses and adverse occurrences.”

Much of this bullying is a reflection of problems such as status differences between doctors and support staff, tense conditions with life and death consequences, lack of oversight and supervision (so that folks know they are being held to a civility standard) and general lack of communication skills. Be that as it may, it’s the consequences that concern me.

Consequences of Bullying in Hospitals


Those who feel bullied and abused are going to have a harder time concentrating. They will be traumatized, afraid, and will lose their confidence.

Team Cohesion

Good medical care is built upon team cohesion and effectiveness. Bullying undermines teams and creates individuals who are afraid to speak up and become unable to do their finest work. Teams require trust and good communication. Bullying eliminates these.

Patient Fall-out

So, you are the patient and are going into surgery. Don’t you want your surgeon and his or her team to be working at their peak ability? Of course you do. But, if you have a bullying doctor or nurse or administrator as part of that team, then you have no team. Instead you have chaos and you’re going to suffer the consequences of such chaos. And your care my potentially suffer.

Ensuring Patient Safety

This is what I mean when I say “bullying by proxy”—if the people taking care of us have a bullying situation in their teams, then we all suffer. Though we may not have felt like targets of bullying, as patients, we suffer the consequences.

Since we don’t know how well the team taking care of us works together, we have to trust that all is well, or look for signs, or do some research. Having recently had surgery I can tell you this is hard to deduce. I looked at the team in pre-op and how they worked with my surgeon. Then I talked with the post-op staff and hospital nurses and staff to learn about the reputation of my surgeon. All was well in my case, but I consider myself lucky. If things had been otherwise, I would have had to change surgeons for future procedures. It’s hard to be patient, self-advocate and evaluator all at the same time. And I think it’s unreasonable to expect the patient to serve all these roles.

How can we evaluate our care and our team before surgery? What guidelines should hospitals be enforcing so that patients receive the best care possible?

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I’ve been a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years. My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts.

I’m Kathleen Bartle, Conflict Consultant.