In 2015, a team of Israeli researchers studied the impact of rude comments by another doctor on medical teams while they did a simulation of caring for a very sick premature baby.
The words, from an expert the participants were told was observing them, included that he was “not impressed with the quality of medicine in Israel” and that medical staff in Israel “wouldn’t last a week” in his NICU in the United States.
Twenty-four NICU teams participated and teams were randomly assigned to hear the expert’s rude comments or to hear his neutral comments. The teams that experienced the rude comments scored less well in their diagnosis of the baby’s problems and in how they performed tasks like resuscitation and asking for the right lab tests. They were rated by two judges. “Rudeness exposure [by a medical superior] can adversely affect the cognitive functions required for effective diagnostic and medical procedural performance,” the researchers conclude, and may be a source of devastating medical error.
Two teams were given a preventative intervention—one was a cognitive bias-changing game and the other a therapeutic writing exercise. The 20-minute computer game before the simulation showed angry and happy faces and provided feedback that made them less sensitive to negative emotions. The writing exercise involved having one team write about the rude event after it happened. The teams that experienced the rude comments from the mother scored less well on how they diagnosed the baby and intervened, as well as how their team shared information and workload. The researchers showed that the pre-simulation computer game reduced these negative effects on care, while the post-intervention writing exercise was ineffective.
Arik Riskin: The study is important because it increases awareness that there are many factors related to human behaviour, relations and communication between [health workers] and between them and their patients or families. We are not robots, we are human beings with feelings, and we react to social situations and behaviours as do other humans. But, in the case of [health workers], the impact can be devastating, because we are dealing with patients, treatments and life-and-death decisions. The remedy starts from awareness and recognition that there may be a problem with this issue. Awareness is important for us as medical team members, but it’s also important to our patients and their families and to healthcare management authorities dealing with ways to decrease medical errors and improve care and patient safety.
The rudeness is not necessarily turned toward the [health worker] that was involved in that previous incident, and may be unrelated to the parent's infant or to the NICU or hospital. It can be some argument between the parents or in their larger family.
However, when it hits the physician or nurse out of the blue, they start thinking ‘What have I done wrong?’ This starts the process of rumination—thinking over and over ‘Why did I get this insult?,’ drains their cognitive resources and eventually can affect their ability to treat patients.
In this study, we also demonstrated that these deleterious effects of rudeness are not restricted to individuals, but also to teams. This is important because—based on the assumption that teams can often overcome and compensate for individual performance limitations—medical work is increasingly structured around teams. Our findings demonstrate that when rudeness is present, the very collaborative processes that generally enable teams to outperform individuals may break down.
To the extent that rudeness impedes team helping and workload sharing, teams may not be able to deliver the heightened level of patient care that practitioners have come to expect from them.
During this game, the computer determined the participant’s threshold to threat—that is, the angry faces—and then gave them feedback designed to raise this threshold and ‘immunize’ them from devoting substantial attention to minor threats.
As designed, the computer intervention ‘immunized’ participants’ medical and therapeutic performance and teamwork by shifting their attention away from the implicit threat posed by the mother, likely preserving cognitive resources for the tasks at hand. The computer intervention operated not so much by mitigating the appraisal of rudeness, but by making team members more resilient to it.
The teams who did the writing exercise worked on the simulation with rudeness first, and then went to a debriefing room where they were asked to write a paragraph or two about how they thought the mother of the infant felt when it seemed to her that the team was unsuccessful in treating the baby.
By the end of the day, those in the narrative group did not view the mother as ruder than controls. These results suggest that while writing about the experience from the mother’s perspective facilitated participants’ positive reappraisal of her rude behaviour, it failed to help them overcome the cognitive disruption caused by it.
There is also the issue of timing. We allow parents in our NICU all day long, including in rounds, but parents must understand that we also need to treat, to do resuscitation and other procedures, and to look after other babies. So we are not all the time available to answer every question. They should be patient and understand that sometimes we simply don’t have time to talk to them immediately, and we’ll be happy to do so later when we have time.
So, please don’t start shouting at us, making rude remarks about how careless or less attentive we are. This makes us feel bad, makes us ruminate about ‘What have we done wrong?’ and drains our cognitive resources in a way that eventually hurts our performance or even causes us to do unintentional harm.
Parents should and can express their concerns about treatment, and if they think it’s poor care, they should tell this to the medical team. If this doesn’t help, they can talk to their superiors, and if this doesn’t help, they can ask to go and get the treatment in another facility. The problem is that many times it’s not poor care, but mainly frustration on behalf of the parents because their infant is really sick and doing badly despite all the treatments given to him or her.
Parents need to have some trust and faith in the team taking care of their baby in order not to lose hope, which is so important for them, and us too. Parents should ask questions, should learn and read about their infant’s condition, and should inquire about the diagnosis and possible other treatments. But at a certain [point] they need to have some trust and confidence in us as medical team members, coming days and nights to do our best for their babies.
Being rude simply doesn’t help and might actually cause the opposite by distracting us and disturbing us from doing our best.
I have worked with many parents over the years and those that had a positive attitude to all that was happening, despite all the stress and hard times they were going through, coped much better than other parents. I believe that this attitude gave them hope, which is so important in tough times. I think they may have also been more open to the support we are willing and trying as best as we can to give to all the parents of the sick infants and preemies we’re taking care of.
By highlighting the impact that adverse social contexts may have on team-level [collaboration], our findings provide the foundation for a wide range of interventions aimed at enhancing patient safety. Our results suggest that instituting protocols and procedures aimed at bolstering the defenses of medical teams to the cognitive distraction and drain elicited by rudeness can help mitigate the devastating consequences of these events, even when they can’t be prevented.
Teaching physicians and other health workers to talk nicely, gently and politely with parents is no less important than the medical treatment we provide. I recall my first lesson in neonatology as a resident. The director of our NICU then, the late Dr. Berger, taught me. We went to talk to a mother after a delivery. The mother was very stressed and frustrated even though her baby was improving. Then Dr. Berger sat with me and told me her insights about how mothers feel after delivery, and how we need to talk to them and support them. She told me this was my first lesson in pediatrics and in neonatology—How to talk to a mother—and it was more important than any other lesson I’d learn.
I carry this important lesson with me and pass it over to my students, residents and fellows. I still find talking to parents the most challenging, but also the most rewarding, part of my work. I look at them as our teammates in the long, long [journey] we have to go together to make their infant survive and to be as healthy and happy as possible.