Support for physicians experiencing threats and harassment
Physicians and medical learners have always played an important role as health advocates. This role has continued to evolve: many physicians are now using various social media platforms to share scientific knowledge, advance evidence-based positions and advocate for the public’s health and wellness during the pandemic. But for some, this engagement has come at a high cost, with trolls and conspiracy theorists targeting them on and offline. Over the past year, these threats and harassment have escalated and intensified. According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 misinformation fuels many of their beliefs and behaviours.
Based on the CMA’s 2021 National Physician Health Survey, more than 78% of physicians stated they experienced intimidation, bullying and/or harassment in the workplace. And in a study* released by JAMA Internal Medicine in April 2021, nearly one-quarter of physicians surveyed reported being personally attacked on social media in 2019. Those who experienced harassment consistently reported emotional distress and fear.
The CMA has been advocating with policy makers and the federal government to change legislation with the goal of protecting health workers from threats, violence, harassment and intimidation. Bill C-3, which includes an amendment to the Criminal Code, came into force on January 16, 2022.
The CMA has also compiled practical resources and psychological supports for physicians and health care workers experiencing harassment online or in their workplace.
Tips for physicians experiencing online harassment
If you’re experiencing threats or harassment online, guidance from the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Alberta suggests you:
- Keep a log with all details surrounding the abuse or harassment, including the date, time and screenshots of the behaviour.
- Do not engage with the individual. The individual is likely looking for a reaction and engaging could fuel them further.
- Mute the individual. Most social media and online platforms give you the option to mute individuals. When you do this, you will no longer see their content but they will still be able to see your content, visit your profile and possibly send you direct messages.
- Block the individual. This will make it so the user can no longer contact you through the platform on which you blocked them.
- Report the individual. Depending on the situation and the platform, reporting an individual can result in someone’s post being removed, or their account possibly being suspended or deleted from the platform.
- Sometimes people will create new or multiple accounts to harass someone. If this happens to you, continue to block and report the accounts that are abusing or harassing you.
- If someone is threatening you or others in your life, you should contact local law enforcement to seek further advice and guidance.
Abusive behaviour in the workplace
If you’re faced with abusive behaviour in the workplace, the Canadian Medical Protective Association advises you to:
- Stay calm, professional, and non-confrontational.
- Take the lead by treating others with respect and compassion.
- Try to identify the root causes of the abusive behaviour.
- Focus on the issues rather than on personalities to reach a mutually acceptable resolution.
- Seek help from trusted colleagues or contact the CMPA for advice and assistance.
- Refer to policies governing the management of abusive behaviour in the workplace, when applicable.
- Document abusive encounters clearly and factually.
When faced with imminent life-threatening violence, physicians should:
- Leave the area and take steps to protect patients, staff, themselves, and their families.
- Call security or 9-1-1, as appropriate.
List of national crisis support lines and provincial health programs for physicians
- Sound Mind – a podcast about physician wellness and medical culture, hosted by psychiatrist and wellness expert Dr. Caroline Gérin-Lajoie (CMA)
- Stopping attacks on health care – an initiative aims to ensure that health workers everywhere are able to provide health care in a safe and protected environment without disruption from acts of violence (World Health Organization)
- Preventing Violence, Harassment and Bullying Against Health Workers – evidence-based recommendations for health service organizations and academic institutions so they can recognize, prevent and manage violence, harassment and bullying in the workplace (Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario)
- COVID-19 and Violence Against Health-Care – Safer COVID-19 Response: Checklist for Health-Care Services – a practical, actionable summary of important measures for preventing, reducing and mitigating the effects of violence against health care workers in the workplace (International Committee of Red Cross)
- Social Media Harassment Toolkit – a toolkit of resources for health professionals being harassed on social media (Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team)
- Internet Harassment or Cyberbullying fact sheets – guidance for professionals experiencing online harassment from a health and safety perspective (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety)
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