Identifying and Addressing Sexual Misconduct in Healthcare

Identifying Sexual Misconduct and Tips to Deal with it Professionally

A recent survey of 6,200 physician and clinicians in the US finds that 10% report being sexually abused, harassed, or experiencing sexual misconduct at some time during the past three years. 14% of those surveyed have witnessed sexual abuse, harassment or misconduct in the workplace. In the era of #MeToo, you might think that standing up to this type of unacceptable behavior is met with swift action. You would be wrong. Here is what the survey found about sexual misconduct in the healthcare environment.

What Falls Under Sexual Misconduct?

It’s most important to know what defines sexual misconduct in the workplace. It includes the following:

  • Unwanted sexual text messages and/or emails
  • Comments about anatomy or body parts
  • Propositions to engage in sexual activity
  • Being asked repeatedly for a date
  • Offer of a promotion in exchange for a sexual favor
  • Threats of punishment for refusal of a sexual favor
  • Deliberately infringing on body space
  • Unwanted groping, hugging or physical contact
  • Deliberate fondling of self in view of others
  • Grabbing body parts
  • Rape

Physicians experienced the lowest rate of sexual misconduct at seven percent. Advanced level practitioners experienced a higher rate of 11%. Of those who have personally experienced sexual misconduct, the majority were women, 12%, and 4% were men.

Both men and women have witnessed inappropriate acts at fairly even rates, 14% of men and 13% of women. 3% of the men surveyed say they have been accused of sexual misconduct while none of the women say they were.

When it comes to the types of sexual misconduct that clinicians experienced, the majority were short of violent acts like rape. However, any sexual misconduct is upsetting and disconcerting to those who experience it.

  • 55%: deliberately infringing on body space
  • 52%: sexual comments about anatomy
  • 42%; unwanted groping, hugging, or other physical contact

At the other end of the spectrum were heinous acts:

  • 8%: grabbed body parts
  • 5%: deliberately fondling in view of the other person
  • 3%: rape
  • 3%: offer of a promotion for sexual favors
  • 2%: threat of punishment for refusing sexual favor

When clinicians were asked how many perpetrators there had been, the number was shockingly high.

  • 79% of physicians (non-residents) reported having one to three perpetrators
  • 65% of residents had one to three perpetrators
  • 12% of residents reported that more than seven perpetrators

Who are the perpetrators?

Among the physicians, they reported as follows:

  • 47%: other physicians
  • 30%: were in the category of “other” that included administrators, non-medical personnel, and patients
  • 4%: nurses
  • 1%: medical student
  • 1%: nurse practitioner

The people most likely to be perpetrators aren’t always superiors. Subordinates are equally as likely to engage in sexual misconduct. When asked about the perpetrators’ position relative to theirs, respondents said:

  • 37%: subordinates
  • 26%: a peer
  • 37%: a superior

Even highly trained professionals don’t always know how to respond to sexual misconduct.

55%: did nothing

39%: told the perpetrator to stop

20%: told the perpetrator “how I felt”

Only 40% of physicians who experienced some type of sexual misconduct reported the behavior. It’s easy to understand why. Many who report such incidents are laid off or fired. Less than 1/4 of the reported incidents are investigated. In 37% of the cases, no action is taken at all. In addition, those who reported sexual misconduct reported the following outcomes:

  • 27%: perpetrator’s behavior was trivialized
  • 16%: I was retaliated against by the perpetrator
  • 15%: I was retaliated against by management
  • 13%: the perpetrator was reprimanded
  • 11%: the perpetrator was fired
  • 6%: the perpetrator apologized to me
  • 5%: the perpetrator was moved to a different department
  • 3%: legal action was taken against the perpetrator
  • 16%: other

One survey respondent said, “I let him know immediately that he was inappropriate. The next day he went to the boss, and they laid me off before I could take the issue further.”

Another said, “I waited 2 years to report the issue because I didn’t want to harm my own reputation, only to find out he was saying negative things about me. Not much changed after reporting him, and it was escalated to HR who really only wanted to protect the hospital’s own interests. In the end, not much was done.”

Sexual harassment is so much more than experiencing an unwanted touch. The physical and emotional impact can last years. It can result in depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. The lasting distress can interfere with one’s daily life and work. Without treatment and support, the mental and emotional effects of sexual abuse and harassment can become physical ailments like muscle aches, anxiety attacks, crying jags, hair loss and other chronic health problems.

Identifying and Addressing Sexual Misconduct in Healthcare

So, What Do You Do?

What can you do if you experience sexual misconduct in the workplace? As we have read, reporting it doesn’t always result in the desired outcome. Many organizations don’t know how to investigate sexual misconduct complaints. In others, money plays a role and the organization is hesitant to discipline high-revenue generating physicians. More often than not reporting sexual misconduct hurts the victim more than the perpetrator. If you experience it and you don’t want to report it, are there other options?

Talk to someone: Seek help and talk to someone about the incident. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a colleague or reporting the incident to your employer, find a mental health professional and talk it out. It’s the best way to protect your mental, emotional and physical health. Not talking about your experience is toxic and will delay your recovery.

Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). It’s free and you’ll receive confidential support. They can help you find resources in your local area, counseling and give you information on the laws in your area regarding sexual harassment.  

Report it to a state agency: Each state has a civil rights agency. They are charged with enforcing an individual’s civil rights and protecting against sexual harassment, among other violations. You find a list of the civil rights agencies in all states here.

If all else fails, protect yourself. If you don’t want to report the sexual harassment, or have done so with no avail, find yourself a more positive work environment. An organization that protects the perpetrator is not one in which you will thrive. Your experience may affect your performance and result in absenteeism, sick days, loss of experience and income. We must all fight sexual harassment. We must all protect ourselves in the process.