Become a disruptive physician: How to do it right


“Disruptive physician” is one of the most misused terms in healthcare these days. In many organizations, those two words have become the c-suite’s trump card to quash any physician resistance to new administrative programs. These programs are often have purely financial motives or are a brazen attempt to dump additional tasks on the physicians with no regard for their workload or stress levels.

The doctor’s legitimate concerns about quality of care don’t matter. They are lost in the politics of the silos of the administrative and clinical sides of the organization. They are quickly seen as not being a team player. The disruptive physician label comes flying out and the doctor is deftly tossed under the bus so the meeting can move on to the next topic.

Often, this is bullying, plain and simple. It can create permanent consequences for the physician, including diversion into any number of treatment programs and not uncommonly losing their job.

However, sometimes the disruptive name calling is just a consequence of a fundamental clash of communication styles between physicians and administrators. In this situation, the skills inside the disruptive physician’s toolkit will allow you to do the following:

  • Air your legitimate concern
  • Be heard by the administration
  • Avoid being labeled disruptive in the process

Physician vs administrator communication clash

Physicians are highly trained experts at finding a unifying diagnosis, the crux of the problem, the thing that is likely to go wrong. We see clinical issues administrators are completely unaware of.  We do all of this at lightening speed, because in our diagnoses often must be made quickly.

When we see a problem, we point it out without hesitation and we are not used to having to explain ourselves. And we shoot from the hip, without regard to the social setting or the politically correct thing to say in the given situation. One word for this is “blurting.”

This is not how you make your point in the midst of a meeting to a group of administrators. They do not think or communicate in this fashion. It is not what you say, but how you are saying it. Disruptive physician labeling can be the result of this clash of communication styles.

The disruptive physician’s toolkit

If you have a concern, talk to as many people as possible before the meeting where this program will be discussed

To raise a concern for the first time in the midst of a meeting is the definition of rude to an administrator. Discovery and building of consensus is best done before the meeting occurs – much like the work in politics is done in conversations before they vote on the bill on the floor. You want your concern to be discussed, shared, understood and at least a partial consensus on what to do about it. All done before any committee meeting.

Always ask questions, rather than making statements

Ask questions of everyone involved in the proposal and everyone who will be part of the decision on whether or not it goes forward.  Always start your questions with the word “what” or “how.“ This guarantees an open ended question that will draw the maximum of information from the person to whom you are speaking.

Here are some very simple and powerful examples:

  • “What are your thoughts on program “X”?”
  • “How do you see program “X” affecting the quality of care?”
  • “I have some concerns about “X”. How do you see we might be able to address them?”

Channel Columbo

Do your best to imitate the character of “Columbo” in the old TV series. Hand to the forehead, self deprecating, “Maybe this is a silly question, but I was wondrin’ … ”

Columbo’s style goes against our doctor programming to be “seldom wrong and never in doubt” and I encourage you to let that go. Columbo was never called disruptive and was always very effective.

  • Try asking questions instead of telling people what to do (giving orders)
  • Try channeling Columbo when you speak
  • You have no idea how massively effective this is with administrators (and everywhere else in your life)

Find solutions and build consensus

In your pre-meeting discussions, if you find your concern is shared by your colleagues, build consensus (before the meeting) on several solutions or ideas to address your concerns. You will have consensus on the concern and the possible solutions in your back pocket before the meeting begins.

Appeal to the highest value possible at all times

Always keep the team focused on the highest possible corporate value – one that everyone can agree to. Usually this will be quality of care or patient satisfaction. This is your trump card. When you are bringing up any clinical concern about an administration proposal, relate it to one of these  higher values whenever you can. It can sound like this.

“I know we all agree that none of us wants the quality of care to suffer as a result of this initiative.”

This phrase used early and often keeps everyone focused on the big picture, and not your objection. It states something no one can disagree with and keeps them from immediately disagreeing with you.

What not to do

  • Don’t communicate like a doctor
  • Do not raise your concern the way you would normally do on automatic pilot, as a declarative statement of fact. Example: “I think this is a bad idea and here’s why.
  • Always ask a question. Remember to channel Columbo. Be either curious or confused.
    • “I am confused here.” (Columbo)
    • This patient flow initiative is supposed to make it easier to see 35 patients a day, but a number of us here are concerned it will only increase the EMR documentation backlog and that will affect the quality of care. I am curious what your thoughts are about our concerns here Mr. CEO?” (open ended question)
  • Do not show any emotion that could be perceived as negative
  • Do not:
    • Stand up
    • Raise your voice
    • Furrow your brow
    • Slam your fist on the table, point fingers, slam doors, swear, throw things
    • Or send any body language signals of anger, frustration or hostility.
  • Focus on your breathing and ask question
  • If you do feel any of these emotions, name them out loud
  • Let people know what you are feeling with a civil tongue. Just make sure you have done the work before the meeting so that everyone is aware of your concerns and feelings.
    • “I must admit when I hear your answer, what comes up for me is frustration.  I am curious (Columbo) what we can come up with for a proposal here that could address both of our concerns. “ (open ended question)
  • Do not leave a paper trail or voice mail trail
    • It is completely appropriate to be seriously paranoid about documentation of any of your concerns in a format that could be shared. Do not send emails, text messages, messages through your EMR or leave voice mails especially if you are upset and venting to someone you feel is a trusted colleague. If you must vent in an email, write it and then delete it. Do not create a paper or voice mail trail.
    • If you do leave recorded or written evidence of your concerns, you are running an almost 100% risk of those documents or voice mails falling into the hands of someone who will label you as the next disruptive physician on staff. Here’s why.
    • It is impossible for them NOT to take your concerns and tone out of context.
    • Make sure you raise your concerns only in conversations, where the other person can understand your energy, tone, body language and caring for everyone involved – especially the patients. There is no way any of that can be understood through a text, email or voice message, especially by an administrator who does not agree with or understand your position.

Ultimately, if you work in an organization with a pattern of hostility towards the physicians and clinical staff and a habit of bullying with the disruptive label, you will decide whether that is something you will tolerate  or not. You always have the option to vote with your feet.

If you do decide to leave, it is my intention that this disruptive physician toolkit ensures the following:

  • Your concerns have been heard
  • You gave it your best shot at ensuring the program made clinical sense
  • You don’t have the disruptive physician label hanging round your neck to get in the way of you finding a better position

Have you ever been labeled as disruptive?

If you are in a leadership position, what communication tools do you use to avoid the disruptive physician label?

If you have tried channeling Columbo, how did that go for you?

Dike Drummond is a family physician and provides burnout prevention and treatment services for healthcare professionals at his site, The Happy MD.


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