A case-based framework for de-escalating conflict


Hospital medicine can be a demanding and fast-paced environment where resources are stretched thin, with both clinicians and patients stressed. A hospitalist’s role is dynamic, serving as an advocate, leader, or role model while working with interdisciplinary and diverse teams for the welfare of the patient. This constellation of pressures makes a degree of conflict inevitable.

Dr. Rachna Rawal, clinical assistant professor of medicine, University of Pittsburgh

Dr. Rachna Rawal

Often, an unexpected scenario can render the hospitalist uncertain and yet the hospitalist’s response can escalate or deescalate conflict. The multiple roles that a hospitalist represents may buckle to the single role of advocating for themselves, a colleague, or a patient in a tense scenario. When this happens, many hospitalists feel disempowered to respond.

De-escalation is a practical skill that involves being calm, respectful, and open minded toward the other person, while also maintaining boundaries. Here we provide case-based tips and skills that highlight the role for de-escalation.

Questions to ask yourself in midst of conflict:

  • How did the problematic behavior make you feel?
  • What will be your approach in handling this?
  • When should you address this?
  • What is the outcome you are hoping to achieve?
  • What is the outcome the other person is hoping to achieve?

Case 1

There is a female physician rounding with your team. Introductions were made at the start of a patient encounter. The patient repeatedly calls the female physician by her first name and refers to a male colleague as “doctor.”

Commentary: This scenario is commonly encountered by women who are physicians. They may be mistaken for the nurse, a technician, or a housekeeper. This exacerbates inequality and impostor syndrome as women can feel unheard, undervalued, and not recognized for their expertise and achievements. It can be challenging for a woman to reaffirm herself as she worries that the patient will not respect her or will think that she is being aggressive.

Dr. Alison K. Ashford, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha

Dr. Alison K. Ashford

Approach: It is vital to interject by firmly reintroducing the female physician by her correct title. If you are the subject of this scenario, you may interject by firmly reintroducing yourself. If the patient or a colleague continues to refer to her by her first name, it is appropriate to say, “Please call her Dr. XYZ.” There is likely another female colleague or trainee nearby that will view this scenario as a model for setting boundaries.

To prevent similar future situations, consistently refer to all peers by their title in front of patients and peers in all professional settings (such as lectures, luncheons, etc.) to establish this as a cultural norm. Also, utilize hospital badges that clearly display roles in large letters.

Case 2

During sign out from a colleague, the colleague repeatedly refers to a patient hospitalized with sickle cell disease as a “frequent flyer” and “drug seeker,” and then remarks, “you know how these patients are.”

Commentary: A situation like this raises concerns about bias and stereotyping. Everyone has implicit bias. Recognizing and acknowledging when implicit bias affects objectivity in patient care is vital to providing appropriate care. It can be intimidating to broach this subject with a colleague as it may cause the colleague to become defensive and uncomfortable as revealing another person’s bias can be difficult. But physicians owe it to a patient’s wellbeing to remain objective and to prevent future colleagues from providing subpar care as a result.

Dr. Nicole Lee, University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Albuquerque

Dr. Nicole Lee

Approach: In this case, saying, “Sometimes my previous experiences can affect my thinking. Will you explain what behaviors the patient has shown this admission that are concerning to you? This will allow me to grasp the complexity of the situation.” Another strategy is to share that there are new recommendations for how to use language about patients with sickle cell disease and patients who require opioids as a part of their treatment plan. Your hospitalist group could have a journal club on how bias affects patients and about the best practices in the care of people with sickle cell disease. A next step could be to build a quality improvement project to review the care of patients hospitalized for sickle cell disease or opioid use.

Case 3

You are conducting bedside rounds with your team. Your intern, a person of color, begins to present. The patient interjects by requesting that the intern leave as he “does not want a foreigner taking care” of him.

Dr. Eileen Barrett,University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

Dr. Eileen Barrett

Commentary: Requests like this can be shocking. The team leader has a responsibility to immediately act to ensure the psychological safety of the team. Ideally, your response should set firm boundaries and expectations that support the learner as a valued and respected clinician and allow the intern to complete the presentation. In this scenario, regardless of the response the patient takes, it is vital to maintain a safe environment for the trainee. It is crucial to debrief with the team immediately after as an exchange of thoughts and emotions in a safe space can allow for everyone to feel welcome. Additionally, this debrief can provide insights to the team leader of how to address similar situations in the future. The opportunity to allow the intern to no longer follow the patient should be offered, and if the intern opts to no longer follow the patient, accommodations should be made.

Approach: “This physician is a member of the medical team, and we are all working together to provide you with the best care. Everyone on this team is an equal. We value diversity of our team members as it allows us to take care of all our patients. We respect you and expect respect for each member of the team. If you feel that you are unable to respect our team members right now, we will leave for now and return later.” To ensure the patient is provided with appropriate care, be sure to debrief with the patient’s nurse.


These scenarios represent some of the many complex interpersonal challenges hospitalists encounter. These approaches are suggestions that are open to improvement as de-escalation of a conflict is a critical and evolving skill and practice.

For more tips on managing conflict, consider reading “Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson and colleagues. These skills can provide the tools we need to recenter ourselves when we are in the midst of these challenging situations.

Dr. Rawal is clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Dr. Ashford is assistant professor and program director in the department of internal medicine/pediatrics at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha. Dr. Lee and Dr. Barrett are based in the department of internal medicine, University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Albuquerque. This article is sponsored by the SHM Physicians in Training (PIT) committee, which submits quarterly content to The Hospitalist on topics relevant to trainees and early career hospitalists.

Recommended Reading

Hospitalist movers and shakers – September 2021
The Hospitalist
Tolerance in medicine
The Hospitalist
Hospitals must identify and empower women leaders
The Hospitalist
Mentoring is key to growing women’s leadership in medicine
The Hospitalist
Hospitalist movers and shakers - November 2021
The Hospitalist
What does it mean to be a trustworthy male ally?
The Hospitalist
Hospitalists helped plan COVID-19 field hospitals
The Hospitalist
Hospitalist movers and shakers – December 2021
The Hospitalist
Residency programs readjust during COVID
The Hospitalist
Reflecting on 2021, looking forward to 2022
The Hospitalist
   Comments ()