Illustration by A3 Studios
*Caution: Emotionally-charged post, pinch of salt required… personal feelings only and not the editorial view of the EMJ/BMJ.
On the morning of the 9th November 2016, I woke up to the earth-shattering news that Donald Trump had been elected President Elect of the United States. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
Rain pounded menacingly against my bedroom window, all my social media outlets exploded with sentiment of anger and sadness, and my American fiancé lay next to me in floods of tears.
I, like many (urm… all) of my friends and family, and seemingly the majority of the #FOAMed community, am horrified by the Trump phenomenon. His hateful, divisive rhetoric is unlike anything I’ve previously encountered in a public figure, let alone the new leader of the free world. Appropriately, and frighteningly, he has drawn comparisons with some of modern history’s ugliest dictators, such as Hitler and Mussolini. Mind-bendingly hideous stuff.
Throughout his campaign, Trump would verbally decapitate anyone who dared to undermine him. Cutting personal insults and sinister threats (‘I’ll throw her in jail when I’m in the White House!’) were par for the course, and reflective of an insecure man with astonishingly thin skin. Of course most of the time it was his rival Hillary Clinton in the firing line, but even fellow Republicans took some damage if they decided to be critical.
If his foul-mouthed tirades were a shrewd strategic move for diverting attention from his lack of political acumen and poor grasp of the Presidential job description, then arguably, the man’s a genius. Decipherable policy specifics were sparse, but unashamed fascism seemed to be a common theme, exemplified by absurd proposals to build a wall on the US-Mexico border and ban all Muslims from entering the US.
I’ve lost count of how many times I felt convinced of his self-destruction. Whether it was accusing all Mexican immigrants of being ‘rapists’, jokingly inviting a Clinton assassination attempt, or the release of a video where he openly boasted of sexual assault, he somehow kept on surviving. And then he won the keys to the White House. Ugh.
I am no journalist. Nor am I a political analyst. I’m a blogtastic British junior doctor training to be an Emergency Physician, and therefore pretty far removed from the whole debacle (*wipes sweat off brow*). Having said that, witnessing Trump’s ascendancy has triggered an important work-related reflection that I feel the urge to share.
Where is our basic human decency?
The Trump campaign suffered from a disease which stripped it of basic human decency. Depressingly, this reminded me of the alarming regularity that I witness unnecessary rudeness and outright bullying in the ED environment. Unpleasant, heated exchanges are a daily occurrence (certainly where I work anyway). Where does the hostility come from?
We’re bloody busy
The influence of workload cannot be emphasised enough. The ED is inevitably the busiest department in every reasonably-sized hospital, and it remains so 24 hour-a-day, 7 days-a-week (despite what our Health Secretary might have the tabloid newspapers believe).
When you consider that in 2015-16 there were 22.9 million visits to the 136 existing EDs in the UK, I think it’s fair to say overburdened is an understatement (by developed world standards of course) (1). Stress levels can reach fever pitch at the sight of a an overflowing waiting room, a seemingly never-ending list of ‘unclicked-on’ patients on a computer screen, or a growing congregation of paramedics indicating that pregnant ambulances are queuing up.
All of these are inevitable features of working in a UK ED, and with the added pressure to have patients ‘sorted’ in under four hours (i.e. discharged or warded), it’s understandable that some might become irritable and combative. It doesn’t matter if you are a native ED doctor, nurse or visiting specialist, the feeling is contagious; it’s a pressure-cooker workplace, and too often I see people releasing their personal pressure-valves by taking out frustrations on colleagues.
Of course, all of the emotional demands of working in such an over-stretched environment are heightened when dealing with particularly sick and unpredictable patients. As such, the resuscitation room tends to be the arena where I am most stunned by the way colleagues address each other.
False inferiority complex
There is no department where tribalism is more evident than the ED. It’s a bubbling cauldron of inter-specialty and multidisciplinary interaction.
As emergency medicine practitioners, we’re arguably the only nominal generalists in the hospital setting. This means that in the eyes of some of our specialty colleagues, we’re ‘second best’ at managing many of the pathologies we see. We can commence management of acute coronary syndrome, but we’re not cardiologists; we can intubate, but we’re not anaesthetists; we can even crack chests, but we’re not cardiothoracic surgeons.
This, of course, is a total fallacy. Emergency physicians might seem like generalists at surface-level, but the reality is that they ‘specialise’ in appropriately differentiating the undifferentiated. Where neighbouring specialties anchor towards diagnosing familiar pathologies (e.g. the cardiologist quickly labelling a patient’s chest pain as myocardial ischaemia), emergency physicians won’t jump to premature and potentially dangerous false conclusions, and remain open to multiple possibilities until firm evidence presents itself. In the initial phase of managing patients fresh from the community, across the spectrum of acuity, the emergency physician possesses the safest, and most expert pair of hands.
Unfortunately this isn’t always recognised by our specialty colleagues, who can overlook the inherent challenges of the emergency medicine landscape, and occasionally be quick to patronise, condescend, and even ridicule when being referred to, particularly when by a junior person.
In the more vulnerable amongst us ED folk, this can breed a false inferiority complex and erode confidence. Seniors are more likely to react with verbal pugilism if they feel disrespected.
Conflict is further cultivated by the unfortunate reality that much of our job involves giving someone else more work to do, which naturally fosters resentment on their part.
Of course, the outcome of inter-specialty collisions in the ED don’t always end in tears, and I appreciate that I might be painting a overly grim picture. However, in my experience the referral process can turn ugly very quickly, particularly when other stressors are in play (e.g. being particularly busy).
Doctors aren’t supposed to make mistakes. However, it’s undeniable that healthcare (especially the ED) is highly error-prone. It’s an unpredictable, dynamic environment with an extraordinary amount of moving parts.
The hallmark of a good system is a strong culture of learning from failure. The ultimate example is the peerless aviation industry, whose safety model has become the stuff of legend – they jump up and down with excitement when a plane crashes because it represents an opportunity for precious learning (2).
In stark contrast, it’s no secret that the healthcare industry hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory when it comes to promoting patient safety. From the Mid-Staffordshire Enquiry to the Harold Shipman scandal, our history is littered with examples of system failures that should have been thwarted earlier through a healthier culture of incident reporting and institutional change management.
I’m not saying we’ve had no success stories, I’m merely suggesting that there’s an awful lot of room for improvement. There’s the tragic case of Elaine Bromiley, whose death in the anaesthetic room prior to a routine sinus operation prompted an independent investigation which led to a global revolution in patient safety measures around airway management (3). It’s worth noting that the investigation was driven by Elaine’s inspirational husband Martin – a commercial airline pilot.
There are plenty of historical and structural reasons for our suboptimal safety culture, but arguably the most important factor is that society puts doctors on a pedestal, and assumes invincibility. Error is heavily stigmatised in our workplace because the public expects perfection. So when the inevitable mistakes do occur and we fear being implicated, a strategy for deflecting attention is to turn on each other. Even when there is no risk of being implicated, we still can’t resist the urge to point the finger of blame (or gossip about the incident behind the back of the guilty party) because somehow it soothes open wounds from previous public humiliations.
When it comes to mistakes, our institutional focus is on who did it, and not what can be learnt from it. Opportunities for progression usually descend into fruitless professional witch-hunts. And this culture is ingrained in us all from medical school.
The ‘patients lives are on the line’ card
Trump exonerated himself from his revolting campaign narrative by playing the ‘political correctness’ card. He fooled the electorate, and branches of the media, into thinking his verbal excrement was acceptable (even attractive) because he wasn’t a career politician and therefore didn’t ‘play by the rules’. No other presidential candidate in US history would have got away with some of the things he’s said, but he was ‘sticking it to the establishment’, so it was OK.
In a similar vein, I believe that it’s become acceptable for collegiality and decency to be left at the door of the ED because the ‘patients lives are on the line’ card gets played. The stakes are far too high for us to care about the way we treat each other.
This attitude is helped along by our very rigid, arguably militaristic hierarchical structure.
There is no doubt that a hierarchy is crucial for ultimate decision-making accountability, but it gets abused too often in my opinion. Of course some are more guilty than others, but if a senior person is feeling particularly under pressure (or, dare I say it, out of their depth), it’s all too easy for them to take out their frustrations on a defenceless junior staff member – riding the authority gradient. And it’s totally acceptable to do so, because it’s a patient’s life at stake of course.
I’m not just talking about consultants and senior nurses, it spans the entire spectrum of ED staff. I’ve witnessed a rookie doctor rotating through the ED viciously bark at student nurses for taking ‘too long!’ to attach the monitoring to a perfectly stable patient in majors – unacceptable, and an abuse of authority even at the most junior level.
Misplaced self-importance anaesthetises basic manners. We weaponise the inherent moral high ground of doctoring in much the same way that Trump weaponised being ‘un-PC’. We’re getting away with behaviour that we shouldn’t.
The irony of playing this ‘card’ (so to speak) is that our patients ultimately suffer because our multidisciplinary teammates are less willing to go the extra mile for someone they don’t like. Truly toxic stuff. Are we that self-righteous? Are we that arrogant?
Why are we not holding ourselves to a higher standard?
I am not proclaiming to be mightier than thou. I have fallen foul of high stress, surfed the authority gradient and hidden behind the fallacy that I’m making regular life and death decisions as much as the next junior emergency medicine trainee. I can recall multiple times where I’ve been unacceptably rude to colleagues, and even remember an occasion where I made a nurse cry and run out of resus. I was remorseful about those moments, but only transiently. There was always something ‘terribly important’ I could distract myself with, ridding me of the shame I felt for being a b*****d to a colleague for no valid reason.
However, those I verbally abused will not have recovered so quickly, and are now more likely to treat their future juniors as I did them on those occasions. This is the vicious cycle of bullying that I’m sure every doctor reading this post will relate to on some level, whether they can admit to it or not.
Why are we not holding ourselves to a higher standard? As front row spectators to the fragility and preciousness of human existence, surely we of all people should have more respect for each other.
We musn’t be fooled into thinking that just because we have different skillsets or seniority that we aren’t singing from the same hymn sheet. No matter what it says on your hospital name badge, we all have the same job description: help make people better.
We deal in the currency of human life, which in my opinion is the greatest professional privilege that there is. No matter how bad our day seemingly is, or how much pressure we feel under, you can bet your bottom dollar that you need to look no further than the frightened, desperate person staring back at you from the trolley to find someone worse off. That dose of perspective is a gift, and it alone should do the job of warding off Trump-like demonstrations of contempt for our colleagues.
Of course, Americans voted for Trump in their droves (in much the same way that Brits voted for ghastly Brexit). Why? That’s not for me to say; I’ll leave that to the politicos. What I can say with some certainty is that a massive proportion of the Western world feels a potent combination of embarrassment, sorrow and anger that we’ve allowed such a harmful situation to escalate.
Is this not the very same cocktail of emotions that we feel after a hostile exchange in the ED? We must strive to be better at checking ourselves before forgetting our basic human decency and engaging in needless workplace warfare.
We’re better than this.
Do the right thing
As medical professionals, our knowledge-base and skillset give us almost supernatural status in the eyes of the public. Being a doctor is more than a job, it’s a title. But that’s not why they’ll allow us to slice into their bodies, poison them with medications, and have access to their most hidden secrets. They allow us these privileges because we’re supposed to be fundamentally good people who’ll always act in their best interests no matter what the cost. We, more so than anyone else in wider society, are deemed to be the custodians of doing the right thing.
That should be something we carry with us at all times in our workplace, regardless of who we are speaking to, or the nature of the scenario. There is no place for Trumpism in the ED.
NB: I appreciate that the content of this post is emotionally-driven, opinion-based, and potentially controversial. Please feel free to commentate/agree/criticise in the comments, it would be great to generate some discussion around the topics brought up.
- Accident and Emergency Statistics: Demand, Performance and …
- Black Box Thinking. By Matthew Syed.
- What can we learn from fatal mistakes in surgery. By Kevin Fong, BBC News.
Many thanks A3 Studios for the amazing accompanying graphic.