Physician mistreatment is common and has negative consequences, report says

Viki Mohamad/Unsplash

A recent study found 30 percent of physicians surveyed faced discrimination and mistreatment from patients, patient family members, and visitors, leading to increased feelings of burnout.

The report, published in JAMA Network Open, was led by Liselotte Dyrbye, MD, MHPE, senior associate dean of faculty and chief well-being officer at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. The study sought to understand the percentage of physicians who faced mistreatment by patients, family of patients and visitors, and how and if it affected burnout rates. The study’s researchers surveyed physicians around the United States with a questionnaire that included questions on their race, ethnicity, gender, and experiences with mistreatment and discrimination by patients and those associated with them.

Of the 6,512 respondents, 30 percent reported experiences of mistreatment and discrimination and approximately 20 percent reported experiences in which patients, their family members, or visitors refused care based on the physician’s race, ethnicity, or gender. In addition, 25 percent of respondents said they had experienced unwanted sexual advances from patients, those related to patients, and visitors.

The study found mistreatment and discrimination was more common among women and those who are racially or ethnically diverse. For instance, 40 percent of Black male physicians reported experiences of mistreatment and/or discrimination along with 40 percent of Indigenous female physicians. The study also found that physicians faced with mistreatment of discrimination were more likely to have burnout.

“Burnout can lead to physicians cutting back on clinical time, which costs U.S. healthcare tons of money and magnifies workforce shortages, reducing access to care,” said Dyrbye. “Also, if physicians are burned out, they’re more likely to have substance use issues, more likely to have thoughts of suicide. It’s not only horrible by itself that these things are happening, but it’s horrible because burnout has adverse consequences for patients and for society.”

The results of this study suggest that discrimination and mistreatment is widespread among physicians in the U.S., leading to higher rates of burnout. According to the study, these findings underscore the importance of putting systems in place to prevent and protect physicians against mistreatment.

“Some organizations are implementing policies and procedures for patients who have repeated episodes of discriminating against physicians and other members of the healthcare team,” Dyrbye said. “There also are opportunities for chief wellness officers to partner with chief diversity officers to promote a culture of diversity, equity, and belonging within an organization.”