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Friday, May 13, 2022

Housemen and the adult world of bullying

 

How is it that doctors can become bullies? I thought bullying only happened in schools? These are among questions being asked and discussed following the death of a medical houseman at the Penang General Hospital on April 17.

It is suspected that the housemen had fallen from his apartment building due to bullying by senior doctors, but police are still investigating.

While some Malaysians have called for action against senior doctors who bully their juniors, most are perplexed that doctors, who are sworn to heal people regardless of their background, actually bully their juniors.

Some others say, on social media, that this is not surprising as some doctors in government hospitals and clinics can be rather rude, arrogant, or dismissive of patients.

I read a 2018 report which said a survey showed that 79.63% of junior doctors in Malaysia experienced bullying. It said about 17% of junior doctors polled had thought of ending their lives because of bullying. Now that is serious.

The survey was conducted among members of the Doctors Only Bulletin Board System (DOBBS), an online forum which brings together medical doctors in Malaysia. The report said DOBBS had about 16,000 doctors as members.

Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) president Dr Koh Kar Chai was reported as saying that the MMA had received 36 complaints of bullying from housemen, doctors and even specialists since 2017.

We are being told that the bullying of housemen and junior doctors has been going on for years; with some saying it is an “open secret”. So why has it not been addressed?

The latest death has reminded some people of the Dec 22, 2020 death of a trainee doctor who allegedly committed suicide after resigning from his position at the Penang General Hospital three weeks earlier. Then too the question of bullying was raised by fellow doctors and others.

Housemen and young doctors have complained of harassment, overwork and being treated in a manner that robs them of any dignity. They say senior doctors, specialists and even nurses sometimes shout at them in front of patients and treat them badly.

While bullying is bad in itself, something else claimed by bullied housemen is terribly worrying. One report, for instance, quoted a young doctor as saying that racial discrimination was normal when he was a houseman at the Penang General Hospital.

He alleged that housemen from a particular community were treated kindly and enjoyed certain privileges denied the others because the seniors were members of the same race. This is totally wrong and cannot be accepted.

Many politicians and others have called on the government to investigate claims of toxic working conditions for young doctors and the government has established a panel to look into it. Let’s hope something good comes out of it.

Some doctors are now openly discussing their experience as housemen and junior doctors while others are relating stories about the experiences of someone in their family or a friend on social media.

Remarks are being made not only about bullying but also about rude or overbearing doctors. And about “money-minded” doctors in private hospitals.

I came across a tweet which asked how someone who had no empathy for their professional peers could have empathy for their patients.

One person suggested that doctors who bully might have been bullies in school and that they had transported this attitude from the schoolyard to the hospital. In the same Twitter thread, another theorised that doctors who bullied others could have been nerds who had been victims of bullying in school and now that they were in a position of power, they were getting their “revenge”.

But are housemen as innocent as most of us think? Not so, says one doctor who, in a Twitter thread, shared how her fellow housemen used to bully her.

“Hospital bullies need not only be specialists or medical officers. Honestly, your fellow housemen can also bully you really badly,” she tweeted.

She recalled that a “gang” of these housemen used to throw away her food from the pantry. The reason they did this was so that they could hang around longer in the pantry while she would return to work and hold the fort for a while. She said ordering her food and waiting to eat it would take up time and there would be many things to be completed and so she would return to work.

She received much sympathy as she went on giving other instances of how her housemen colleagues had bullied her.

Another person said she had come across a houseman who behaved as if he was a senior medical officer and how frustrating it was for her.

One man said his wife who was working at a health ministry facility faced bullying too and that the place was run by small groups of “gangs” and that the facility was managed by “emotion and based on friendships” rather than professionalism.

In the same thread, one person said: “After reading your post, I wonder how these childish housemen have been accepted to do housemanship in the hospital. They literally treat (the) hospital like a playground; the system should implement (a) screening process to filter out the irresponsible housemen, and nurture the good ones.”

Some senior doctors say housemen and junior doctor work hours – including the on-call shift system- have improved from the time they were in that position. Also, they note, there were fewer housemen then, which meant more work per person.

I may be wrong but I think we have a generation of young people who, living somewhat comfortable lives, are very much softer than the generations before them.

Let me give an example from the world of journalism. Up till the eighties, editors at newspapers often used the four-letter word loudly on staff and would scream at anyone whom they felt had not performed to their expectations. They would throw type-written reports (in the days before the computer), which the journalist might have thought was prize-worthy, into the dustbin or at the journalist without batting an eyelid.

Nobody thought of this as bullying. Young journalists took the faecal discharge (I don’t want to sound crude) in their stride. Some say they were better for it.

But of course, times have changed and so have most editors and editorial floors. Actions that were deemed normal in the earlier decades are now frowned upon and seen as forms of bullying.

Bullying happens almost everywhere, even in the home and especially in the workplace. Unfortunately in Malaysia, bullying in the workplace does not receive much attention although now and then we hear of sexual harassment, a form of bullying.

One Malaysian study showed that 39.1% of 5,235 participants reported having experienced workplace bullying. Almost half of all employees who reported ever being bullied indicated being subject to at least occasional bullying, said the study published in 2019 in “BMC Public Health” by Caryn Mei Hsien Chan, Jyh Eiin Wong, Lena Lay Ling Yeap, Lei Hum Wee, Nor Aini Jamil and Yogarabindranath Swarna Nantha.

Put into perspective, the researchers said, this rate was more than double the reported global prevalence rates of work bullying in developed and developing nations.

“This finding is concerning as our prevalence of 39.1% is more than double the global rate of 15%, particularly so when compared against the lower prevalence (9.0–15%) typically found in Asian countries, including Japan.”

Now that’s certainly not good news. - FMT

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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