Barry Rumack, MD, is curious: If you saw a colleague walking through the hospital corridor smoking a cigarette, what would you do?
He’s asked this question of many people. Most answer decidedly: They’d ask the smoker to stop—immediately.
Next, he wants to know what you’d do if you saw a colleague berating a student in that same corridor.
Most people he talks to insist that the answer to this question is always more complicated. Yet Dr. Rumack insists that it shouldn’t be. It’s unprofessional conduct, and no one at the school should tolerate it.
“As faculty, we’re all responsible for creating and maintaining a professional learning environment,” Rumack explains. “And in the next five years, I’d like to see learner mistreatment become a thing of the past.” Equally important, we are well aware that unprofessional behaviors also undermine trust and teamwork in clinical settings and threaten quality of care and patient safety.
It’s a big goal, but in his new role in the Office of Professionalism, Dr. Rumack is well-positioned to help the School of Medicine shift its culture to one in which unprofessional acts are not tolerated at any level.
Helping Faculty Succeed When Faced with Conflict
Dr. Rumack’s primary role is helping faculty members succeed by properly managing conflict throughout the school. He’s also responsible for helping identify and rectify situations involving unprofessional behavior. Much of his work surrounds medical student mistreatment.
“We’ve known for some time that ‘fear’ is not a teaching technique,” says Dr. Rumack. “I’m here to help learners and faculty handle conflict appropriately.”
Since beginning this post in March, Dr. Rumack has seen a number of interpersonal conflicts arise and has helped the parties involved properly manage the issues. Dr. Rumack says so far, the strategies used in the Office of Professionalism have been helpful.
“A few people who I’ve worked with have stopped by to tell me ‘I learned a lot’ and ‘I think I’ll be better about it’ and ‘I’m sad about the situation but happy it’s been remediated,’” says Dr. Rumack.
Above all, Dr. Rumack wants faculty to understand that the program isn’t meant to be punitive.
“We’re going to do the best we can to help people succeed,” said Dr. Rumack. “It’s about helping people in stressful situations to not be ‘reactive.’ Remember, as faculty, one of our goals is to graduate medical students that are competent doctors. Unprofessional conduct gets in the way of that goal.”
On behalf of the Office of Professionalism, Dr. Rumack receives reports of misconduct and assesses matters as they arise. For lower level first time offenses, it’s often a matter of sitting down and having a cup of coffee.
“It’s usually nothing official if it’s a one-time occurrence. Stress happens in our settings and it’s not unexpected that people will be unhappy and express themselves negatively,” says Dr. Rumack. “We know through published data that in 80 percent of circumstances, the offender is mortified and apologetic for the incident. And most of the time, the behavior doesn’t recur.”
“It’s all about reminding the person that no matter what your stresses are, being unprofessional at the School of Medicine is not acceptable,” said Dr. Rumack.
In cases of mistreatment that recur, mechanisms are in place to help the faculty member succeed. Sometimes recurrence warrants further evaluation or work with the remediation resources provided at the Center for Professional Excellence. In higher level cases, remediation programs may become mandatory as a condition of employment and may eventually warrant removal from patient care or teaching responsibilities or dismissal if the appropriate steps are not taken.
For Dr. Rumack, developing a culture of professionalism is important for learners at all levels.
“I’ve been a part of the school since 1968, and I’m still learning every day. I know many faculty feel the same way,” said Dr. Rumack. “We all made a promise to act professionally. We all need to remember in all circumstances to be respectful and collegial, because that’s what makes a good learning, research and patient care environment.”
About the Office of Professionalism
The Office of Professionalism helps faculty, residents, fellows, and students of the School of Medicine effectively deal with and resolve conflict. This ranges from interpersonal disputes to personnel conflicts to acts of student mistreatment of any kind. The Office provides a resource for fair and equitable treatment in all such matters. Discussions remain confidential and private (with some exceptions). Services provided include consultations, short-term coaching, counseling, referrals, alternative dispute resolution and facilitation. The services of the Office of Professionalism are provided free of charge. Dr. Rumack works in collaboration with the Medical Staff Office and Graduate Medical Education including Program Directors, Undergraduate Medical Education, Human Resources, Clerkship Block Directors and others.