Conflict in medicine: It’s about as inevitable as the flu season. Whether you’re a doctor who owns your own practice or an employed physician, you likely will encounter conflict with support staff and your peers. Successful conflict resolution can determine the health of your professional relationships, your career prospects, and your business.Clare Fowler holds a PhD in workplace mediation. Throughout her career as a mediator, she’s helped physicians resolve disputes with each other and their teams constructively. At the heart of any successful resolution, she says, is good communication.
“We need to be tough on conflict but soft on people,” she says. “The majority of conflicts can be resolved with a simple face-to-face conversation.”
Conflict resolution in medicine
Fowler sees two common conflict patterns in medicine today. The first is doctor-staff conflict.
“A lot of this is due to culture change,” Fowler says. “The support staff is assuming that they have a larger percentage of the decision-making and problem-solving processes, as well as flexibility with their schedules.”
These assumptions clash with the traditional, hierarchical business structure, Fowler says.
Communication problems cause the second type of conflict, according to Fowler. She described a recent client conflict in which a doctor’s staff was responsible for putting inspirational quotes on a bulletin board. A member of the support staff selected a quote that they thought was funny, but the doctor deemed inappropriate. The doctor fired the team member on the spot.
Fowler says this underscores the importance of frequent, proactive communication.
For her doctoral thesis, Fowler looked at more than 4,000 conflicts across the country.
“The majority were caused by communication,” she says, “but at a rate of about 2-1, the conflicts were caused by bad communication as opposed to mean communication.” In other words, people were doing a bad job of understanding each other, not being hostile.
“What’s interesting about that is this is a very trainable skill,” she says.
Fowler recommends that a member of your staff receive training as a facilitator or mediator. This prevents you, the doctor, from having to resolve every conflict that arises.
“The most destructive thing that I have seen is when the doctor becomes a therapist for one member of the team,” Fowler says.
That one person vents to the doctor and eventually feels better. “But nothing has been done to actually resolve the conflict.”
Having a trained mediator or facilitator on staff puts the doctor in an advantageous, neutral position. It also will strengthen relationships and communication within the office. This arrangement enables those in dispute to come up with their own solutions, which they in turn are more likely to abide by.
If a doctor must act as mediator, Fowler says they should encourage those in dispute to talk through their differences.
“It allows them to have buy-in or an investment in what they’re discussing,” she says.
You’ll need to have a neutral party to serve as the mediator. This could be you or another person on the staff — but choose wisely. You do not want to involve somebody with a vested interest in the conflict.
If you fail to reach a resolution, bring in a professional. Your professional relationships will end up ever stronger, Fowler says.
“It can transform the office and has a trickle-down effect on the rest of your life.”
- Professional conflicts in medicine tend to fall into two patterns: Conflicts stemming from changes in work culture and conflicts stemming from poor communication.
- Much conflict stemming from communication occurs due to poor communication, not malice.
- Train someone on your staff to be a mediator.
- If you need to mediate, select a neutral party to facilitate, or do it yourself. Encourage your team to come up with the solutions.