Bullying of medical students has consequences — for future doctors and patients


Two minutes after meeting me, my bully was on the attack.

I was a medical student on placement in a busy medical facility when I met my bully.

Normally we students travel in packs, but at this facility I was the only one. My supervisor was having a bad day, so they sent me off to join another senior doctor.

Their interrogative ‘teaching’ style is all too common in medicine and so I’m somewhat hardened to it.

Ben Bravery, 33, outside the ABC studios in Melbourne.
Image Ben Bravery says doctors should develop their interpersonal skills as they do any other part of their work.(ABC RN: Olivia Willis)

When I was confused about an artery I was being asked to name, the doctor waved their arms around and loudly proclaimed they were going to email the dean of my medical school about my apparent incompetence.

When I couldn’t name the Greek word for an organ, they said that I reminded them of when they were in medical school — when they “didn’t know anything and didn’t care”.

That I didn’t care was news to me.

I had decided to enter medicine after bowel cancer treatment, beating thousands of other students for a place at medical school at the age of 32. The bully didn’t know any of that, nor did they care.

From that point on the bully had a pet name for me and it wasn’t nice — I’m not even sure they knew my actual name. Once the bully sneered that if I didn’t study harder I’d end up a social worker, insulting me and the social worker I was chatting to at the time.

On this occasion my face felt hot and my heart was racing. I wanted to crawl under the desk and cry.

There are some very good reasons why this kind of behaviour needs to stop. Doctors need to start treating each other better, and senior doctors in particular need to cultivate a culture of support and compassion.

We are, after all, caring for society’s sick and vulnerable. But how can we do that well when many of us are riddled with fear, guilt and embarrassment?

But that’s not the only reason.

Bullying of medical trainees is widespread

Man and woman in surgery scrubs washing their hands to depict story about bullying of medical students.
Image A medical environment without bullying is beneficial for both doctors and patients, Ben writes.(Unsplash: Piron Guillaume)

In 2013, a beyondblue study of doctors and medical students found that 20 per cent had been diagnosed with depression, 25 per cent had contemplated suicide, and one in 50 had attempted it.

Just to be clear — all of these stats are much higher than for the general population, the report adds.

Last year an Australasian College for Emergency Medicine survey of 2,100 emergency physicians found more than one-third had experienced bullying.

There are many reasons why doctors have poorer mental health than non-doctors. But surely the way we treat each other is one reason.

Five years after that landmark study, it seems that many doctors still treat each other like crap.

My own experience is not unusual. I know of a student who had their knowledge compared to that of a child, later turning away so no-one saw their tears.

I’ve seen a senior doctor berate a fellow trainee for not performing a manoeuvre properly, barking “get out of the way”. I finally understood why the trainee always looked kind of broken.

I saw firsthand a senior doctor rip a junior team member to shreds in a group phone chat, for all to read and see.

Once I did not find something fast enough in a new storeroom, the doctor stomped in front of me and snatched the item. “You’re going to be eaten alive on the wards,” he said.

I’ve lost track of the eye rolling when a question isn’t answered correctly. And we’ve all become immune to “What do they even teach you these days?!”

A colleague failed to hear a heart murmur when examining a patient — it was a noisy ED and something easily missed by novice ears. The supervisor took a different approach and implied the student had lied and not actually done the examination, wondering aloud if they could be trusted.

I’ve been through radiotherapy, chemotherapy and cancer surgery, so I know pain.

But this was a new type of injury — one that ate away at my sense of self. I even started to excuse the bully — perhaps they were correct and this was the kind of treatment I deserved?

Change will benefit doctors… and their patients

As students we rotate through teams every four to six weeks, so I’ve left the bully behind. But doctors in training don’t have that luxury.

So, we can wait for the system to change, or we can be that system change.

Doctors should reflect on and develop their interpersonal skills just like they do any other part of their work.

Just like mastering a new procedure or understanding new drug dosing, doctors should be encouraged to evaluate and practise their teaching, leadership and mentoring skills.

It’s common for medical students to dream of a better future, when our generation is running the system. But I bet every cohort before us has longed for the same.

One problem is that we aren’t taught how to be good workers and team members.

Unless we start to address these skills, I’m afraid the cycle of mean and unhappy senior doctors moulding mean and unhappy junior doctors will continue.

While I am out of the shadow of this bully now, the statistics show that I will likely see or be the target of unacceptable doctor behaviour again. I was able to cope this time, and feel stronger for it, but a part of me continues to dwell on the way the bully made me feel.

As well as discussing my experience with colleagues, I flagged it with senior doctors who hold positions to affect change.

Discussing this behaviour and reporting it when necessary is the only way to bring about change — the kind of change that is good for doctors and good for patients.

Ben Bravery is a final-year medical student, who was diagnosed with bowel cancer at 28 and survived. His experience inspired him to change careers from zoology and science communication, to medicine.



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