Is Your Healthcare Provider Bullying You During Appointments?

Discover how bullying practitioners 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 cruel ways.

Instead, some bullies 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.

This article covers the signs that your healthcare provider is bullying you. It also discusses how their bullying can affect you, and what you can do about it.

How a Healthcare Provider’s Bullying Impacts You

Confrontational and abusive healthcare providers make appointments and procedures extremely unpleasant and sometimes even dangerous for their patients.

For instance, practitioners who bully often cause communication lapses 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 healthcare providers 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 around 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 medical professional.

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 healthcare providers. As a result, they are less likely to disagree or to speak up for fear of making the practitioner angry.

Consequently, bullied patients are often reluctant to share troubling symptoms or ask questions about their prescriptions. This can happen if their healthcare provider 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 healthcare providers 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 medical professional's patience, especially if the patient is not taking their professional advice seriously or following the agreed upon treatment plan. And patients who self-diagnose or believe they know more than the healthcare provider can put a strain on the doctor-patient relationship.

While building a rapport with your practitioner is important, some patients take this concept too far and become demanding. All of these things can lead a healthcare provider to be grouchy and abrupt.

But before you label your practitioner a bully, remember that bullying exists when there is a pattern to the behavior. In other words, if your healthcare provider 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. Their mean behavior becomes bullying when you receive persistent insults, criticisms, and other actions that exert power and control over you.

Remember, the practitioner who is sometimes gruff is not truly a bully. They might be insensitive, seem overly rushed, get caught up in their own expertise or lack a patient-centered focus, but they do not always behave inappropriately. It is the healthcare providers that regularly display mean and controlling behavior that you have to worry about.

Signs Your Healthcare Provider 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 healthcare provider may be a bully:

  • Refuses to answer your questions or provide you with information about your condition. In other words, they expect you to follow their suggestions for treatment without any additional information and seem really put out if you ask questions. Their expectation is that they are the expert and you should just take their word for it and do exactly as they say. 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 practitioner absolute authority over your body.
  • Displays arrogant and self-righteous behavior. For instance, if you ask about their experience or expertise in a particular area, they are clearly insulted. What's more, they may even make a rude comment about how well-educated and experienced they are.
  • 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. Practitioners 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. If they do notice, they do not care.
  • Does not respect your need for modesty or privacy. Most healthcare providers 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 practitioner barges into your room without knocking and does not respect your dignity, then they may be a bully. It also is a red flag if they fail to warn you of what they are about to do while examining you or if they leave you in an exposed position.
  • Speaks condescendingly toward you. Healthcare providers are well-educated and knowledgeable, but this does not give them the right to treat you like you are stupid. If your practitioner talks down to you or does not speak respectfully, this could be a sign that they are a bully.
  • Handles you roughly. While it's true that there are some examinations and procedures that hurt, your healthcare provider should still be sensitive to your comfort. They also should refrain from any unnecessary prodding. If your practitioner regularly hurts you without explanation or apology, you may want to consider finding another healthcare provider.
  • Treats his nurses and assistants poorly. If a practitioner's nurses, physician assistants, and support staff are nervous around them, 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 healthcare provider is, if they exhibit 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.

Summary

A healthcare provider who seems short-tempered once is probably not a bully. However, they may be a bully if they regularly offend or demean you or other practitioners in their office.

Bullying can be physical, such as handling you roughly, or it can be emotional, such as being condescending. Either way, a provider who bullies you can have a negative impact on the quality of your care and can even put you in danger.

A Word From Verywell

If you feel like your healthcare provider 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 their abusive conduct or take the matter to a supervisor.

If standing up to the bully is not effective and they continue to intimidate you, it is time to find a new practitioner. If their behavior is severe, you may want to consider reporting their behavior to the state licensing board. Remember, just because your healthcare provider may be an expert in his field does not give them the right to bully you.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. StopBullying.gov. Effects of bullying.

  2. Grissinger M. Unresolved disrespectful behavior in health care: Practitioners speak up (again)-part 1P T. 2017;42(1):4-23.

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

By Sherri Gordon
 Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.