Get disruptive physicians under control to manage legal risks

January 1, 2004

Physicians who exhibit chronic disruptive behavior are a liability risk in hospitals. We're not talking about physicians who have an irascible personality or who occasionally lash out in frustration, but rather those physicians who habitually and continually cause disruptions by, say, using abusive or threatening language or refusing to believe that they could be wrong.

Disruptive physicians tear down staff morale and stifle communication: For example, staff members who are turned off or intimidated by the disruptive physician's behavior may eventually avoid interacting with him or her. This could result in delays in communicating essential information about a patient's care. If a patient is harmed as a result, the hospital could be held liable.

Because of this risk, "medical staff and leadership have the responsibility of trying to eliminate the behavior," says ACOG Today (Nov/Dec 2003). Observing the right to due process, the American Medical Association recommends that disruptive physicians be treated as if they had a substance abuse impairment and referred to a medical staff wellness committee or the equivalent. Whether the disruptive physician can modify his or her behavior—thereby decreasing the threat to the delivery of safe patient care—will determine if the physician must be removed from the medical staff.