If your child’s heath is at stake, having an emotional outburst in a hospital or doctor’s office is completely understandable. But know that those rude comments hurled at your child’s physician could have harmful — even deadly — effects on the doctor’s performance, according to new findings.
In the new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, investigators looked at previous findings from Johns Hopkins, which concluded that more than 250,000 deaths annually in the U.S. are attributed to medical errors (which rank as the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). While it’s estimated that up to 20 percent of these mistakes could be due to a doctor’s lack of sleep, more than 40 percent of inaccuracies, the study finds, could be the result of of rudeness.
“We very quickly realized that [rudeness] affects the cognitive system,” lead researcher Amir Erez, a management professor in the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida, tells Yahoo Beauty. “A doctor can be highly motivated to treat patients, but they cannot think appropriately [when someone is being rude to them]. And they’re not even aware of it, but it affects their functioning.”
To test this theory, 39 neonatal intensive care unit teams (which consisted of two doctors and two nurses) simulated five scenarios where they treated infant medical mannequins for emergency situations. An actress, who played the role of the distressed mother, lashed out at only some of the teams.
At the end of the experiment, Erez and his research colleague, doctoral student Trevor Foulk, discovered that the teams who were berated by the “mother” made life-altering mistakes in all of the 11 study’s measures, from diagnosing the child properly to prescribing a treatment plan.
“As a team, they didn’t function — that was surprising,” says Erez. Also, errors occurred in the five scenarios, indicating that the negative effect lasted throughout the day.
This isn’t the first time Erez analyzed the outcome of medical professionals’ responses to rude behavior. In 2015, he conducted a similar study in which individuals were scolded by an authority figure, which yielded the same results.
Dr. Jennifer Caudle, a family physician and assistant professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, tells Yahoo Beauty about a time when she was face-to-face with a rude mother.
“We had philosophical differences about how to go about her child’s care, and the exchange became, at least I felt, heated in the office,” she states. “I remember her raising her voice to me and being rude. … I could feel myself getting hot inside — I was getting flushed; I was also shocked.”
Caudle recalls composing herself by focusing on the child’s well-being. “I still stand by my recommendations, but in that moment, it wasn’t about what was right or wrong — what it was about was how she felt about the care she was receiving and making sure her son was healthy,” she continues. “Even if my feelings are hurt, the bottom line is, the patient deserves great care.”
As a result of this mother’s comments, Caudle referred her and her son to another physician. “I do understand how if you’re being yelled at, it changes the way you feel, it changes the way you think, and it may change the way you make decisions,” adds Caudle. “That much I do know.”
The promising news for physicians and nurses is that interventions are currently in the making. In Erez’s study, medical professionals took part in a series of computer games designed to raise their threshold of rudeness. They were shown 15 faces, which slowly morphed from happy to angry, and the volunteers were asked to identify the moment the facial expressions indicated anger.
“Then the computer gave them feedback and actually told them, for example, ‘No, it’s not actually at this point [when the person became angry] it’s two faces later on,’” he explains. “It basically raises their level of tolerance, so they become less sensitive [to anger and rudeness] — and it’s all done subconsciously.”
Until more accessible interventions are created, Erez believes the first step for doctors and nurses is identifying that they may experience reduced cognitive function during inappropriate interactions. And, he adds, “It is absolutely not the doctor’s ego” that causes this reaction.