One of my friends, Jim, recently had his first colonoscopy.  He checked with his family practitioner and also asked friends for a referral for a gastroenterologist in our local community.  He was assured that the recommended physician was Board-certified and one of the most highly regarded in his field with years of experience.   He followed all the preparatory instructions prior to the procedure including a truly uncomfortable experience the day prior as he was required to use laxatives to purge his colon for the test.

Jim arrived at the outpatient clinic just across the street from the local community hospital.  The receptionist was quite pleasant and expecting his arrival.  She greeted him with eye contact and exceptional pleasantries.  His previous phone exchanges with the office staff were equally pleasant and he had followed all their instructions without exception.  He took a seat in the waiting room; remaining close to the restroom just in case.  He was a little ‘gun-shy’ after his repeated visits to the bathroom the previous day.

Jim hadn’t waited more than a few moments when his name was called by Sarah, the procedural nurse.  Sarah guided him back to a pleasant suite where the procedure would take place.  On his way through the hall, he heard a commotion and saw a man about his age in a white coat yelling at a young lady in scrubs.  From the pieces of information, he assumed the lady in scrubs had made a mistake related to scheduling a procedure for later in the day and was now being punished for the error by the physician.  Sarah noticed Jim’s concern over the disruption and returned to close the door to the physician’s office after she gave him instructions for changing into the patient gown.  She said, “I hate Mondays; sorry you overheard that. I will be back in a few minutes once you have changed.”

Sarah appeared about five minutes later with the physician whom Jim had seen yelling at the lady in scrubs; but now he has was calm and controlled as he greeted Jim with a pleasant smile, introduced himself and shook Jim’s hand.  Jim felt better that things were now calm again and all seemed on track for the procedure.

The young lady in scrubs who had been yelled at just a few minutes before now entered the room and came over to him and introduced herself as Tamara.  She explained that she would be starting his IV for the sedative he was going to receive prior to the procedure.  It was easy for Jim to see that she had been crying as her make-up had run slightly and tears were still visible at the corners of her eyes.

Tamara made her first attempt at placing the IV in Jim’s left arm but was unable to find the vein.  The doctor immediately yelled for her to leave the room and declared that Sarah would finish the IV placement.  Tamara rushed from the room and Jim did not see her again; Sarah rolled her eyes and completed the IV placement.  Jim was very uncomfortable but didn’t say anything.

The rest of the procedure was uneventful.  When he received his report from the lab, he was pleased with the results giving him a clean bill of health.  He wasn’t so sure about the fate of Tamara nor was he sure he would return to this clinic in the future.

Unprofessional behavior among healthcare providers and staff has proven to be not only a detriment to morale but also a contributing factor to medical errors, poor teamwork and ineffective communication.  One recent study on unprofessional behaviors stated the following:

“Humiliating, degrading, or shaming behavior is a threat to patient safety because it can have both immediate and long-term negative effects on the recipient. In the immediate aftermath of an episode of humiliation, the recipient experiences a mixture of intense feelings: fear, anger, shame, confusion, uncertainty, isolation, self-doubt, frustration, and depression. These feelings affect significantly a person’s ability to think clearly, making an error in decision making or performance more likely. In addition, intimidation may stimulate a person to commit an unsafe act.”

If you observe unprofessional behavior by a healthcare professional, you may want to consider confronting the individual and even consider changing physicians or asking for a different nurse or staff member during your office visit or hospital stay.  It may not be true that ‘words can’t hurt you.’  Instead, look for the early warning signs of an unprofessional act as a threat to patient safety.

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