Friday, August 24, 2012

Lance Armstrong and parallels with physician discipline

I read the headlines in the paper today "Armstrong stripped of seven Tour titles."  I had just read his personal position on Facebook.  For those who have not followed this issue, the US Anti Doping Agency (USADA) has been trying to say that Armstrong violated doping regulations by using banned substances despite a significant amount of objective evidence in his favor.  The objective evidence in his favor was to such a degree that the Department of Justice dropped a 2 year investigation of him.  The USADA is not a branch of law enforcement branch but it does have the power to ban athletes, ban them for life, and apparently remove any awards that they have won in a retrospective manner even though they were under intense scrutiny at the time.  In my reading the USADA also apparently believes that their test results are infallible which makes their spin on those results even more confusing.  As Armstrong points out - during competition he had to submit for testing 24/7 at at no time did the USADA say that he had a positive test result or pull him from competition.  I am not going to review the pros and cons of the decision - only to say that at this point it has been politicized and a stunning amount of objective evidence has been ignored.  My interest in the process is how it resembles similar processes that are conducted against physicians.

The "disruptive physician" concept seems to have been the driving force behind a lot of these initiatives.   Disruptive physicians to me would be physicians who have not violated the medical practice statutes in their states.  They would be basically physicians that somebody doesn't like because of their behavior or personality.  The Joint Commission has a position statement:

"Intimidating and disruptive behaviors including overt actions such as verbal outbursts and physical threats, as well as passive activities such as refusing to perform assigned tasks were quietly exhibiting uncooperative attitudes during routine activities. Intimidating and disruptive behaviors are often manifested by healthcare professionals in positions of power. Such behaviors include reluctance or refusal to answer questions, return phone calls or pages, condescending language or voice intonation, and impatience with questions or it overt and passive behaviors undermine team effectiveness and can compromise the safety of patients. All intimidating and disruptive behaviors are unprofessional and should not be tolerated."

They go on to cite research suggesting that these behaviors are widespread as high as 40% in some settings. The research is survey research and there are no concerns about its potential quality or biases. My concern and working in a number of medical settings for the past 30 years is that I have witnessed it exactly once. An attending physician personally verbally attacked me several times after he learned I was going to be a psychiatrist at least until I outguessed him on the correct diagnosis of acute abdominal pain.  I think that behavior would clearly qualify.

On the other hand, I have become aware of many physicians being disciplined and even losing their jobs over trivial situations in the workplace. Apparently the threshold for a complaint against a physician is that the complainant feels as if they were "disrespected".  In today's healthcare environment that complaint plus a personal dislike from a department chairman is enough to get you fired or at least live a miserable existence until you decide to quit.  That is true irrespective of the number of people who would testify on your behalf, service to the department, patient satisfaction ratings,  ratings by residents and medical students, and other professional accomplishments.  If you are a physician these days all it takes is the subjective opinion from someone who does not know you or your personal motivation or reasons for doing things to file a complaint and potentially destroy your career. Even if you are not fired outright, there could be a lingering process of accumulating demerits and reviews by other physicians who are not sympathetic to your plight before you are ultimately let go.

At least Lance Armstrong can say that a ton of objective evidence was ignored in order to make this decision. The decision against a physician can be based on a single subjective complaint irrespective of how reliable or credible the complainant is and what sort of evidence exists.

That is all it takes to be a disruptive physician.

George Dawson, MD. DFAPA

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