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Don't badmouth your colleagues

19 August 2022

Dr Yash Naidoo, Case Manager at Dental Protection, looks at how interprofessional criticism can negatively impact on your relationship with patient

After two years of working from home, the working world is slowly starting to go back to the office. With that comes the commute, and for many like me, the car radio. I tune in to one of Johannesburg’s popular music breakfast shows during my drive to the office, and pay little attention to the chat segments between the songs.

On this particular morning, however, there was something different on the radio. The host – a well-known celebrity – said something that immediately pricked my ears to attention: “I have a bone to pick with every single dentist in the country.” Oh no, I thought. What have we done?

I think it’s important at this point for me to pause and say that I was a practising dentist, before becoming a practising lawyer. Those two professions are relevant in the context of this article. I no longer practise either profession, but instead my current role gives me the privilege of assisting doctors, dentists and healthcare professionals when they find themselves in trouble with their regulator, among other things.

Back to the radio show. It turns out that what had happened to the host, was that she had consulted a new dentist and was pleasantly surprised to hear his positive comments about the dental work done by the previous dentist. “Every other dentist that I’ve gone to… the first thing they rush to do… is to trash the dentist who you went to before,” the radio host proclaimed. Her colleagues in the background at the studio could be heard concurring. They all agreed that the practice of making disparaging comments about colleagues, in a particular profession or industry, annoyed them.

They then opened their phone lines to the general public, asking for people to call in and say which professions they believed were notorious for a lack of collegiality – specifically, which professionals don’t compliment their colleagues. Dentists featured prominently. Lawyers too.

Interprofessional animosity was highlighted by a caller – between physiotherapists and chiropractors. Doctors were also mentioned – by more than one caller. One pointed a finger at GPs, while another was very specific in describing what she perceived to be a spat between ophthalmologists and optometrists. When questioned on which of the two professions she fell under, her reply was that she was neither, but that she had had first-hand experience of disparaging remarks made by each professional, about the other, when she was required to take her child to consult with both.

Even sangomas (traditional healers or diviners) were not spared. The radio host summed it up perfectly: “It actually doesn’t serve the patient.” The lighthearted but insightful radio segment can be listened to here.

For me, this segment provided a fascinating insight into public sentiment and perceptions about various professions. Particularly the healthcare professions. And it reminded me about a particular rule of the HPCSA, and why the rule is so important.

The HPCSA rule

The HPCSA’s ethical rule 12 says that “[a] practitioner shall not cast reflections on the probity, professional reputation or skill of another person registered under the [Health Professions] Act or any other Health Act”.

Let’s break that rule down and focus on some of the less straightforward terms.

“Shall” is archaic legalese. Put simply, it means “must”. “Cast reflections” essentially means to look back on something, in this context in a negative light. “Probity” is the quality of having strong moral principles, honesty, decency. The remainder of the rule needs no further dissection.

To put it simply – as healthcare practitioners registered with the HPCSA, we must not badmouth our colleagues.

Why does the rule exist?

That question is understandable. Does the HPCSA simply want us to sugarcoat our views and heap praise on our colleagues for the sake of it? No – the rule clearly does not say that. But what is its purpose.

The reason will perhaps become clearer, when viewed in the context of the HPCSA’s general ethical guidelines for the healthcare professions.

The HPCSA says that the primary professional duty of a healthcare practitioner should be concern for the patient’s best interests and wellbeing. In order to fulfill this duty, they must, among other things, honour the trust of their patients and be mindful that they are in a position of power over their patients and should avoid abusing this position.

The preamble to the general ethical guidelines commences with the first sentence: “Good clinical practice is based on a trust relationship between patients and healthcare professionals.”

With this background, it should be clearer why the rule in question exists. It is there to ensure that the reputation of the profession is upheld. And not for the sake of the professions, but for the sake of the patient. If the profession is brought into disrepute, then the public will lose faith in its professionals, which in turn leads to a breakdown in trust and inevitably, compromised clinical practice.

We are human

I appreciate that it is not always easy to keep tight-lipped. A slip of the tongue can happen, even innocently as an observation in passing. Or a thought out aloud. But we must remember the rule, the reason for it, and then ask ourselves – is the comment I am about to make going to benefit the patient in any way? If the answer is no, then it should not be said.

Reporting unprofessional, illegal or unethical conduct

With that said, it is not the case that you should always remain silent. That is where the HPCSA’s rule 25 comes in. It says that you must report any unprofessional, illegal or unethical conduct on the part of another colleague, to the HPCSA. The circumstances under which this rule would be applicable are beyond the scope of this article, but it is mentioned here merely as a reminder that there are conflicting duties and rules in professional practice, and when faced with such conflicts, careful consideration is required before acting.


The healthcare profession is a noble profession. We have a duty to uphold its reputation. The reputation of the profession is important for the public’s trust in the profession. Without trust, clinical practice is compromised. And the best interests of the patient fall by the wayside.

A negative comment about a colleague, said to a patient, can create a negative perception of the profession as a whole. Before making a comment about a colleague, ask yourself if it will benefit the patient in any way. If not, don’t say it. And if you find yourself in a professional or ethical dilemma, remember to contact Dental Protection and ask for assistance.