Physicians not immune to sexual harassment in the workplace

(Reuters Health) - Sexual comments about body parts or anatomy, leering and unwanted groping, hugging and patting are among the most common types of on-the-job harassment reported by respondents to a new Medscape survey on sexual harassment of physicians.

Together, those behaviors adversely affected the wellbeing of half of the 12 percent of female and 4 percent of male physicians who reported experiencing sexual harassment at work.

Other harassing behaviors included repeatedly being asked for a date or given continual unwanted romantic attention; infringement on body space by standing too close; receiving unwanted sexual text messages or emails from someone at work; and explicit or implicit propositions to engage in sexual activity

Fourteen percent of those who were sexually harassed quit their jobs as a result, according to the report.

About half of the affected physicians and residents did not say anything to their harasser. Of the 40 percent who reported the offensive behavior, more than half (54 percent) said their organizations either did nothing or trivialized the incident.

Less than one-quarter of the reported incidents resulted in an investigation, and action was taken - e.g., reprimanding, firing, or making the harasser apologize - in 38 percent of those cases.

The perpetrator was a physician in 47 percent of cases and a nurse in 16 percent. Perpetrators also included administrators, nonmedical personnel, and patients.

“While the statistics are troubling, I think the Medscape report shows that the situation is changing, somewhat, for the positive,” report author Leslie Kane, senior Director, Medscape Business of Medicine, told Reuters Health.

Although the survey of 3,700 physicians and 440 residents asked whether sexual harassment had occurred within the past three years, Kane noted, “we had dozens of responses that said . . . ‘not since I was a student, but I still remember,’ and ‘I’m much older now so it hasn’t happened lately, but when I was young, I experienced it a lot.’”

“I think that’s why the situation - while still happening - may be less severe than it was in the past,” she said. “Of course, there are still many people who are fearful of reporting the incident to their hospital or HR department.”

Dr. Hansa Bhargava, Senior Medical Director at WebMD and Medscape, said in the same email, “Medicine is not unlike other industries. Systemic bias and long-standing cultures that protect ‘superstars’ exist. The Me Too movement has brought these issues to the fore . . . The medical profession, like others, needs to ensure zero tolerance for offenses, and investigate each one fully, regardless of how powerful or professionally skilled the individual is.”

“Protocols are important, but many organizations have them and yet victims still don’t report harassment,” she added. “That speaks to the culture of an organization. You can have a protocol, but you also need to cultivate an environment where victims feel that they can speak up without fearing for their jobs, their careers or their professional reputation.”

Dr. Reshma Jagsi, director of the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, added her story to the Me Too annals in an essay earlier this year in The New England Journal of Medicine ( She told Reuters Health by email, "What I found most compelling about this study was the finding that literally thousands of physicians have experienced harassment on the job - as I did - from varied sources that include not only other physicians and staff but also patients."

“These data add to the argument that it is definitely time for change in the field of medicine,” she said by email. “The time has clearly come to implement evidence-based interventions.”

“Those who have told me their stories describe fears of retaliation, stigmatization, and marginalization - quite understandably not wanting to jeopardize their professional standing after dedicating so much of their lives to the pursuit of a medical career,” she noted.

“The good news is that there really is, especially in the wake of the #metoo movement, growing recognition that old excuses like ‘boys will be boys’ are no longer acceptable, and that active efforts to transform culture and promote civility and respect are underway,” she concluded.

SOURCE: Medscape, online June 13, 2018.