Systematic review of academic bullying in medical settings: dynamics and consequences

BMJ Open. 2021 Jul 12;11(7):e043256. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-043256.


Purpose: To characterise the dynamics and consequences of bullying in academic medical settings, report factors that promote academic bullying and describe potential interventions.

Design: Systematic review.

Data sources: We searched EMBASE and PsycINFO for articles published between 1 January 1999 and 7 February 2021.

Study selection: We included studies conducted in academic medical settings in which victims were consultants or trainees. Studies had to describe bullying behaviours; the perpetrators or victims; barriers or facilitators; impact or interventions. Data were assessed independently by two reviewers.

Results: We included 68 studies representing 82 349 respondents. Studies described academic bullying as the abuse of authority that impeded the education or career of the victim through punishing behaviours that included overwork, destabilisation and isolation in academic settings. Among 35 779 individuals who responded about bullying patterns in 28 studies, the most commonly described (38.2% respondents) was overwork. Among 24 894 individuals in 33 studies who reported the impact, the most common was psychological distress (39.1% respondents). Consultants were the most common bullies identified (53.6% of 15 868 respondents in 31 studies). Among demographic groups, men were identified as the most common perpetrators (67.2% of 4722 respondents in 5 studies) and women the most common victims (56.2% of 15 246 respondents in 27 studies). Only a minority of victims (28.9% of 9410 victims in 25 studies) reported the bullying, and most (57.5%) did not perceive a positive outcome. Facilitators of bullying included lack of enforcement of institutional policies (reported in 13 studies), hierarchical power structures (7 studies) and normalisation of bullying (10 studies). Studies testing the effectiveness of anti-bullying interventions had a high risk of bias.

Conclusions: Academic bullying commonly involved overwork, had a negative impact on well-being and was not typically reported. Perpetrators were most commonly consultants and men across career stages, and victims were commonly women. Methodologically robust trials of anti-bullying interventions are needed.

Limitations: Most studies (40 of 68) had at least a moderate risk of bias. All interventions were tested in uncontrolled before-after studies.

Keywords: general medicine (see internal medicine); health services administration & management; medical education & training.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Bullying*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Organizational Policy

Grant support