5 Examples of Unprofessional Behavior in Healthcare (And How to Not Lose Your License)

examples of unprofessional behavior in healthcare

Unprofessional behavior in healthcare refers to actions or conduct that violate the ethical standards and codes of the profession. It is a failure to maintain the high level of professionalism expected of those entrusted with caring for people’s lives and well-being.

Professionalism is absolutely vital in healthcare. Patients are vulnerable, and they put enormous trust in clinicians to treat them with skill, compassion, and integrity. When that sacred trust is broken through unprofessional behavior, it can have devastating consequences for patient safety and quality of care.

That’s why regulatory bodies take unprofessional conduct so seriously. In California, the Medical Board and Board of Registered Nursing have disciplined thousands of licensed professionals for misconduct. In 2022 alone, the Medical Board of California received nearly 10,000 complaints and launched almost 1,100 investigations.

So, what does unprofessional behavior look like in the real world?

1. Unprofessional Behavior Towards Patients

At the heart of healthcare ethics is the principle of respect for persons – treating all patients with dignity, compassion, and regard for their autonomy. Unprofessional conduct towards patients represents a violation of that sacred principle.

  • One of the most serious breaches is violating a patient’s right to privacy and confidentiality of their personal health information.
  • Gossiping about a celebrity’s treatment, taking photos in the hospital room, or accessing medical records without a legitimate need are clear violations that can destroy patient trust.
  • Even more disturbing are cases of inappropriate comments, derogatory language, or behavior that discriminates against patients based on race, gender, disability, or other factors.
  • Neglect or patient abandonment – failing to provide necessary care and placing patients at risk of harm or injury – is also considered unprofessional.

Physical, verbal, or emotional abuse and mistreatment toward patients are universally unacceptable. Nurses and doctors have been disciplined for incidents like slapping a combative patient, making cruel remarks about a patient’s injuries, or maliciously waking them for unnecessary tests.

These flagrant violations represent a catastrophic breakdown in the clinician’s fundamental ethical duties to patients.

2. Unprofessional Interactions with Colleagues and Peers

Teamwork and collaboration are critical for safe, high-quality patient care. When a breakdown in professionalism or toxic workplace behavior occurs between colleagues, it can create an unsafe environment that puts patients at risk.

  • Bullying, harassment, intimidation, and other disruptive behaviors can undermine communication, cooperation, and morale.
  • Refusing to take orders from supervising staff, undermining their instructions, or failing to communicate critical information creates dangerous breakdowns.
  • Romantic or sexual relationships between staff who have direct authority over each other – or the appearance of favoritism arising from a relationship – can disrupt workplace dynamics, staff morale, and public trust.
  • Even spreading malicious rumors or gossiping about colleagues can be considered unprofessional.

Overall, unprofessional conduct that prevents staff from working together as a cohesive, effective team can harm patients through mistakes, delays, or poor quality of care.

3. Substance Abuse and Impairment Issues

For obvious reasons, being impaired by alcohol, recreational drugs, or misusing medications while on duty poses an extreme risk to patient safety that regulators take very seriously.

The numbers don’t lie – a study found that nearly 70% of healthcare professionals had abused drugs at some point in their careers. And alarmingly, data suggests the problem may be worsening due to pandemic burnout.

Not only is it unprofessional to provide care while under the influence, but clinicians also have an ethical duty to self-report any conditions or impairments that might impact their ability to practice safely. Failing to disclose active addictions or health issues that could compromise patient care is a violation.

Even if not intentional, working while impaired by prescription meds, illness, or severe sleep deprivation that affects clinical judgment can lead to mistakes, negligence, and disciplinary consequences.

4. Criminal Behavior and Unethical Conduct

While less common than other violations, criminal actions and grossly unethical behavior by healthcare workers often make news due to their appalling nature.

  • Instances of fraud, theft, falsifying records or credentials, or intentional deception can immediately shatter the public’s trust in the healthcare profession.
  • Negligence, incompetence, or malpractice that results in patients being harmed is also considered an ethical violation.

Most abhorrent of all are cases involving sexual misconduct, abuse, or exploitation of patients. These cases often result in the harshest disciplinary actions available, including permanent license revocation and even criminal prosecution.

No matter how well-respected or accomplished one may be, healthcare professionals who commit such egregious moral and legal violations are thought to be incapable of properly caring for vulnerable patients. Protecting the public is the foremost duty.

5. Professionalism Lapses Related to Burnout

While not as shocking as the previous examples, one of the most common professionalism issues is the concerning trend of burnout in healthcare.

Burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of a sense of personal accomplishment. Essentially, clinicians may become detached, callous, or numb to the human factors of providing care:

  1. As burnout sets in, we start to see troubling drops in compassion, patience, and attentiveness to patients.
  2. Minor lapses of temper or insensitive comments become more common as caregivers hit their limit.
  3. Things like chronic tardiness or absenteeism also signal looming burnout.
  4. At its worst, advanced burnout causes some clinicians to let basic self-care and professional appearance slip through the cracks.

While burnout is not an intentional unethical choice, these types of professionalism failures still represent a concerning deprioritization of core standards. After all, how can you care for others when you’ve lost the ability to care for yourself?

The escalating rates of depression, suicide, and substance abuse among healthcare workers only underscores the widespread damage being done by chronic burnout. Addressing this systemic issue through wellness programs, reasonable workloads, and peer support systems is crucial for maintaining a professional workforce.

Consequences of Unprofessional Conduct in Healthcare

Unprofessional conduct in the healthcare field can have severe ramifications for providers. Even minor incidents of disruptive behavior, poor communication, or lapses in ethical judgment can escalate quickly, putting your professional license and career at stake.

Potential consequences include:

  • Disciplinary action from your employer up to termination
  • Formal complaints filed to your state licensing board
  • Investigations that could lead to license suspension or revocation
  • Damage to your professional reputation and standing in the medical community
  • Increased risk of medical malpractice lawsuits
  • Criminal charges in cases of unethical, illegal, or impaired conduct

Given what’s at stake, healthcare providers must take any allegations of unprofessional behavior extremely seriously. Consulting an experienced professional license defense attorney is critical to protect your rights and properly respond. Left unaddressed, even seemingly small lapses can spiral into career-derailing disciplinary measures.

Defend Your Reputation and Professional License With TONG LAW

Unprofessional behavior in healthcare can put your hard-earned license and career at risk. Even seemingly minor lapses in professionalism can snowball into formal complaints and disciplinary action that threaten your livelihood.

At TONG LAW, our professional license defense attorneys understand what’s at stake. We’ve dedicated our careers to defending healthcare professionals facing allegations of unprofessional conduct. From investigation to hearings, we’ll protect your rights and professional reputation every step of the way. Don’t let one mistake define your career. If you’re facing disciplinary action related to unprofessional behavior, reach out for a confidential consultation.

Author Bio

Vincent Tong

Vincent Tong is the CEO and Managing Partner of TONG LAW, a business and employment law firm located in Oakland, CA. Vincent is a fierce advocate for employees facing discrimination and wrongful termination. With several successful jury trial victories and favorable settlements, he has earned a strong reputation for delivering exceptional results for his clients.

In addition, Vincent provides invaluable counsel to businesses, guiding them on critical matters such as formation and governance, regulatory compliance, and protection of intellectual property assets. His depth of experience allows him to anticipate risks, devise strategies to avoid legal pitfalls, and empower clients to pursue their goals confidently.

Vincent currently serves as the 2021 President of the Board of Directors for the Alameda County Bar Association and sits on the Executive Board for the California Employment Lawyers Association. Recognized for outstanding skills and client dedication, he has consecutively earned the Super Lawyers’ Rising Star honor since 2015, reserved for the top 2.5% of attorneys. He also received the Distinguished Service Award for New Attorney from the Alameda County Bar Association in 2016. He is licensed to practice before all California state courts and the United States District Court for the Northern and Central Districts of California.

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