Doctors Who Berate Nurses: What Can We Do About It?We’ve all been there. Nurses have been belittled, berated and disparaged at the hands of a physician. Not all doctors behave this way. Quite the contrary.

Many treat us as trusted colleagues, members of the healthcare team, extensions of their eyes and ears when caring for patients. We certainly appreciate such professionalism. Unfortunately, too many of us can attest to the opposite treatment of ridicule, shouting, severely criticizing and belittling the nurse.

Is there one of us who hasn’t experienced the slamming of the phone on the other end when calling a physician prone to this communication style? What can we do about it? What actions can we take to rectify this tense situation? Is there a solution?

I remember one specialist in endoscopy who verbally shredded all nurses in front of family members, particularly those orienting to the unit. His words and tone were so harsh that it resulted in tears for the nurse, shock from family members and a smug expression for the physician.

During orientation to the unit, it was my turn to be on the receiving end of such treatment. The gastroenterologist openly castigated me for everyone to hear, his words and vile tone stinging me, wounding me. I was determined not to be like other nurses I’d heard about. I was determined not to cry. And I didn’t cry. In some strange way the physician’s expression changed from smug to that of surprise. His expression grew from surprise to approval when he sought me out after leaving the patient’s bedside to discover I was still not in tears.

Was the behavior a way of separating the men from the boys, those who can cut it from those who can’t?

How many of us can relate to having that one nursing professor in school with a reputation for berating students openly in the clinical setting? There were nursing students who actually quit my program over such treatment from this dreaded professor. All students feared her, hoping to be assigned to clinical rotations with another teacher.

Like the gastroenterologist, after her public ridicule of me, raising her voice and questioning my ability to be in the program, I didn’t falter, I didn’t cry. I continued to calculate a drip rate, thinking critically and answering correctly the questions she assaulted me with.

My ability to stand my emotional and professional ground won her respect.

She actually wrote me a recommendation for my first position after graduation. There weren’t many who asked her for one. There were fewer still who got one!

Perhaps this type of treatment stems from some rite of passage separating professional nurses who can think on their feet and not lose focus from those who shatter into pieces- showing they don’t have the fortitude and strength the professor or the physician is looking for? Sometimes it’s not that at all, but a deficit of character, a deficit of kindness, a deliberate intention not to see or treat the nurse as a member of the healthcare team. Sometimes the surgeon simply needs anger management!

Regardless of the reason, what can we do about it? How can we stop such behavior and unprofessionalism at the hands of a doctor?

  1. Confront the physician. How many of you feel this is a viable option?
  2. Report the situation to management. How many nurses feel this will only make the situation worse? Have any of you used this option with success?
  3. Go to a fellow physician who works well with the doctor you’re having difficulty with to ask for advice. We all know of and work with physicians who are approachable and kind. Have any of them been able to assist you in this type of situation?
  4. Do nothing. This physician generates tremendous business and management is not about to do anything about his/her treatment of nurses. This has been happening for years and you’re going to keep your mouth shut. Can anyone relate?
  5. Call the anonymous hotline to report the physician’s disparaging treatment of others. Have any of you ever phoned in anonymously?
  6. Go to Human Resources for resolution. Have you taken the matter over your manager’s head straight to HR? What happened?


Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” but perhaps, the former First Lady of the United States never encountered some of the specialists we work with on a daily basis whose sole mission in life seems to be that of berating and belittling a nurse. That, Ms. Roosevelt, is easier said than done.

Please share your experience and how you’ve coped with it.