HealthMay 18, 2020

The no. 1 rule of physician conflict resolution

By: Suneel Dhand, MD

It’s one of the oldest and wisest pieces of life advice out there: Never burn your bridges. Nowhere does this apply more aptly than in the world of healthcare.

A survey by the American Medical Association found that the majority of doctors are now employed by healthcare organizations, as opposed to 20 years ago, when physicians would typically start their own lifetime practice straight out of residency. This means that doctors now often find themselves on a conveyor belt of job after job, especially at the start of their careers. In many ways, this is a good thing, because physicians no longer have to stick with a suboptimal work situation. If pay and conditions are better in a neighboring facility, it’s easy to move on because the demand-supply mismatch favors the doctor.

But speaking as someone who has learned from painful experience, leaving a job because of a negative environment or a dispute over internal politics rarely means that you will part on great terms. During my career, I have made the mistake of not going the extra mile: I didn’t sit down and discuss disagreements before I left, thus burning my bridges and creating unnecessary problems for myself down the road.

Physician conflict resolution: Thinking about the big picture

There’s never a good way to resign from a job, but the absolute worst thing you can do is to leave on bad terms with negative feelings toward your colleagues. Why is this a bad move?

1. You will need references

The medical credentialing process at all healthcare facilities is a rigorous one. If you’ve been at your current institution for any length of time, it’s likely that places where you apply for jobs in the future will request references from your colleagues and supervisors, even if you worked there over a decade ago. Simply put, you don’t want them to give you negative references and evaluations.

You have to be tactical in this regard, no matter how bitter you may feel about your situation. This is all about being professional up until your very last day and, above all else, putting your patients first. Leave no doubt in anybody’s mind that you are a great doctor.

2. It can affect patient care for months

You took an oath as a doctor to put your patients first. If you’re in conflict with your workplace in some way—whether with your administration, your boss or your colleagues—the drama can spill over into patient care. This would be the worst-case scenario, of course, and I’d like to think that most doctors are professional enough not to let it happen.

Unlike other professionals, physicians aren’t able to simply leave their job two weeks after they hand in their notice. The typical time between giving notice and leaving is at least three months at most institutions, and during that time, you have to continue your medical practice. Having conflict with those around you during this time that affects clinical care in any way will further worsen things after you depart.

3. The medical world is small

Ask any seasoned physician and they’ll tell you one thing about a career in medicine: The medical world is very small. You’ll encounter your former colleagues over and over again at medical conferences, professional events and even social gatherings. And there are countless stories of physicians who went back to work with old bosses or at facilities they worked in 20 years ago.

This means you don’t want anything negative attached to your name at any organization. Many people work in places for a long time, and rumors and bad reputations stick. Remember, you may also feel quite differently yourself about your old colleagues and where you used to work in a few years, once you’ve had a chance to experience different organizations.

Physician conflict resolution and career changes

Of course, resolving conflict at your workplace is easier said than done. However, it’s worth taking the time to do it before you leave.

Make a concerted effort to sit down with those toward whom you have negative feelings and discuss your issues calmly. You can agree to disagree, but do so cordially, with no hard feelings. If you had disagreements with physician colleagues, go out for a farewell meal or drinks and remember that you’re all doing your best as healthcare workers, even though you don’t always see eye to eye.

Ultimately, this is also about your own reputation and skills as a physician. You want to make sure you continue to be respected in your field. If you’re experiencing conflict in your workplace, it can be tempting to leave on a bad note because of the anger you’re experiencing at the time. But it’s important to avoid burning your bridges so the rest of your career isn’t negatively impacted by one rash decision.

Suneel Dhand, MD
Lippincott® Medicine
Lippincott is a leading international medical publisher of professional health information for practitioners, faculty, residents, students, and healthcare institutions with a full suite of essential medical products, from books and journals to digital solutions.
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