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How to Deal with a Difficult Supervising Physician

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

This is a topic I do not see discussed often, but it happens. I am hoping it does not occur often, but it would be remiss of me to think we are beyond supervising physicians being total asses. Ok, that may be harsh, but when a supervising physician (SP for short) does not respect their professional colleagues, what else do you call it? I have had some of the kindest and respectful SPs, but I have experienced the not-so-good as well.

How does this occur? I do not fully know, but I have some speculation. I think SPs that fall into this category have a general issue with other healthcare providers that are not physicians. They believe a physician is at the top of the ladder, knows all, and knows more than any other HCP that is part of the team. I believe their ego is too big and they feel intimidated by the presence of others in the same arena. They have grown up and lived an elitist life and they believe no one is really on their level. It is arrogance, narcissism, and a lack of awareness. They lack interpersonal skills and believe they are above reproach.

In my 19 years of working in healthcare, there was only one time a doctor made me cry, but I have had other physicians try to disrespect me. The crying incident was as a nurse intern. I made the mistake in the ER of not putting an IV in before giving nitroglycerin to someone that had chest pain. I did put the IV in after, but the doctor handed my ass to me in front of everyone. I was learning, I was new and never had that experience before. I was also 20 years old and did not think to correct him. After that, I told myself to never let anyone disrespect me again.

During my first job as a physician assistant, I worked for a doctor that screamed, yelled, and threw things. He got a kick out of being condescending and making people cry. He had the right one to try it with when he hired me. I am a hard worker and was always at work early and leaving late. One day I left work after being at work for 12 hours to attend my friends birthday party. He called my phone and asked me why was I being lazy. He then told me he was interviewing someone that did not seem as lazy. I think he expected me to beg. I told him I was glad he was interviewing someone and I hope they get the job. He did other things during that year, and when I was fed up with him trying to push my buttons, I told him “stop talking to me crazy. My dad is black, tall, and he never talks like that to me.” When I gave him my notice to quit, his response was “oh, I see you’re a quitter.” I got close, looked him in his eye, and told him “nope, I just hate it here. This is not the environment you would someone you cared about to work in.”

Disrespect from a supervising physician looks like passive-aggressiveness. It can be down-talking your profession in front of you and others. It can be using profanity and barking commands. It can be them constantly cutting you off during patient presentations and being condescending. It may be them inadequately training you for the position, then yelling at you for a mistake, or not doing something how they would have done it. Disrespect could be them not utilizing you for what you were hired to do.

How do you handle this? First, confirm the disrespect. Sometimes we are sensitive and may be overreading something that occurred only once. Even in this instance, I recommend the following steps.

  1. Collect yourself (breathe) and talk to your SP in private. Do not stoop their level if they caused a scene in front of others. Matter of fact, do not give them the satisfaction of arguing with them. Pause and talk one professional to the other.

  2. Tell them exactly what they did and that you feel disrespected. People seem to have a short memory when they do something wrong.

  3. Expect an apology, but do not hold your breath. If they are an ass at baseline, their pride won’t allow them to apologize, even if they are blatantly wrong. If they do not apologize, do not fret or create a scene.

  4. Tell them clearly what your expectations are including how a situation like this will not be tolerated again.

  5. Keep receipts. Write down on paper or email yourself the incident, the date, the time you had the conversation with your SP, and save it. You may need to refer to this if you have to file a formal complaint with human resources.

  6. Make an exit plan. Depending on how bad the incident was.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Jackie the PA

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