What We Can Do Together to Fight Sexual Harassment in Medicine

Gregory A. Hood, MD


June 13, 2018

In This Article

Is It About Sex, Power, or Both?

Some experts have asserted that there can only be abuse or harassment when the perpetrator holds power or authority over the victim. The Medscape survey clearly refutes this. For one, there have been plenty of patients, nurses, and staff who have harassed physicians and other high-level medical personnel, even though almost half of the perpetrators—some 47%—were those who should be peers in all respects. However, a fundamental lack of respect may lie at the heart of these problems, as a pervasive, institutional issue within academia in general, and in no appreciable measure does it seem to be less frequent in medicine.

Let me explain. Years ago, a male surgeon proclaimed to my wife during a medical school lecture that "women have no business going into medicine and taking up a spot in the class because they'll quit practice to have babies." Today, one might chalk that up to the Cro-Magnon talk of that time.

However, a college professor at a prestigious university told one of my daughters within the past 12 months, "I see students who look like you every year. You should drop pre-med and maybe take up English." Comments like this make it seem like we haven't even moved beyond the simplest stages of equality in opportunity and professionalism in American academia. Perhaps the tower isn't so ivory after all. Maybe we ought to reinstate mandatory ethics and philosophy courses in all of our schools.

In their training, medical professionals are taught volumes of facts, as well as theory, history, and nuance. In this particular moment in time, when our society seems so divided, when the volume with which we try to make our points seems to be valued over the Socratic method of conversation, it seems to me that this is a pivotal time for healthcare to take the lead in advancing society's understanding of the modern human condition—particularly with respect to those in which one person exerts power, strength, or persuasion against the will of another.

The advancement and protection of these fundamental human rights must not be diminished or delayed by the mere advancement of any particular agenda, or the self-satisfaction of feeling like you've won out over someone else. That goes for not only how we express our perspectives but for how we conduct ourselves personally, at home or at the clinic, between our colleagues and coworkers, and among our spouses or significant others.

Ask Yourself What You Can Do to Prevent Harassment and Abuse

Unfortunately, it appears all too clear that we can, and must, do better as a profession and as a society to combat sexual misconduct and abuse. If you're in a position of initiating change, then I encourage you to look not only at the rates of inappropriate activities but at the self-reported barriers to reporting incidents.

If your institution isn't responsive to a direct discussion, then it may be worthwhile to point out the losses of productivity and the substantial rate at which victims of sexual abuse leave the profession entirely as means to gain their attention. It's only by examining, questioning, and discussing these terrible events—and the responses to them—that we can hope to make significant inroads in supporting and protecting each other.


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