Bullying is Rife Among Surgical Residents, Especially for Women

By Alexandra Wilson Pecci

Being the target of bullying is a common experience for surgical residents, according to new survey published May 26 on the JAMA website.

Researchers from the American College of Surgeons and Surgical Outcomes and Quality Improvement Center at Northwestern University, both in Chicago, surveyed U.S. 6,956 general surgery residents and found that 67% of respondents have experienced at least one bullying behavior during their time as a resident.

Eighteen percent said they were frequently bullied.

The survey also found that respondents who reported bullying experienced:

  • Repeated reminders of mistakes (42.3%)
  • Being shouted at (39.3%)
  • Withholding of important information (31.8%)
  • Persistent criticism (30.3%)
  • Hostility (24.3%)

Those behaviors most often came from attending surgeons. But respondents also experienced other bullying behaviors, most often from fellow residents. Those included:

  • Being the subject of gossip (32.7%)
  • Exclusion (31.2%)
  • Offensive remarks (23.4%)
  • Unwanted jokes (9.1%)

Residents were more likely to report frequent bullying if they were women.

“Women were more frequently bullied, and training in a program with more women or with departmental leaders who were women was not associated with decreased bullying,” the researchers wrote.

They were also more likely to report frequent bullying if they were a racial/ethnic minority; divorced or widowed; training at a community program; located in the Northeastern United States; or had a low  score on the American Board of Surgery In-Training Examination (ABSITE).

Those who were frequently bullied were more likely to experience burnout, suicidal thoughts, and attrition.

Other research published last year, which examined workplace mistreatment of surgical residents more generally, also linked those behaviors to burnout.

“Exposure to workplace mistreatment was the largest driver of surgical residents’ burnout,” study principal investigator Karl Y. Bilimoria, MD, said in comments accompanying that prior report.

It found the most common workplace mistreatment were sex discrimination (32%), verbal abuse/bullying (30%), racial discrimination (16.6%), and sexual harassment (10.3%).

Alexandra Wilson Pecci is an editor for HealthLeaders.