11% of Nurses, NPs, PAs Claim Recent Sexual Harassment

Marcia Frellick

June 28, 2018

Eleven percent of nurses, nurse practitioners (NPs), and physician assistants (PAs) said they experienced some form of sexual harassment in the past 3 years, according to Medscape's Sexual Harassment of Nurses, NPs, and  PAs: Report 2018.

Nurses and NPs said physicians were the harasser 33% of the time; fellow nurses were the offendors 19% of the time, and PAs (1%) and others (48%) made up nearly half of the perpetrators of nurses and NPs.

In nearly half the instances for PAs (49%), a physician was the harasser. Nurses were the perpetrators 9% of the time and fellow PAs 7% of the time. Others, including hospital administrators or supervisors and patients, made up the remaining 35%.

7% of Physicians Harassed

In comparison, 7% of physicians said they had been sexually harassed in Medscape's physician-centered report on the topic released earlier this month.

Both reports present results of a survey of more than 6200 clinicians in the United States who were asked about specific harassing behavior they have experienced or witnessed in the past 3 years, where it occurred, how they responded, and how it affected them. The survey also asked whether they had been accused of sexual harassment.

Only 1% of nurses, NPs, and PAs said they had been accused of the behavior; 2% of physicians said they had been accused. All respondents in the reports who said they had been accused were male.

Included in the survey's definition of sexual harassment, abuse, or misconduct were unwanted sexual texts/emails, comments about body parts, propositions to engage in sexual activity, being asked repeatedly for a date, offer for 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/physical contact, deliberate self-fondling, grabbing body parts, and rape.

Leering, Standing Too Close Were Most Frequent

The top three forms of harassment that nurses and NPs and then PAs, respectively, experienced were talk about anatomy or leering at body parts (64% for nurses and NPs/57% for PAs); invasion of personal space (62%/57%); and unwanted touching, hugging, or groping (51%/44%).

One of the survey respondents wrote: "I was harvesting the radial artery. With my back to the head of the table, the anesthesiologist continually groped, caressed, and patted my butt."

Another said, "I was sitting at my computer when he approached me from behind and started rubbing my shoulders."

As with other professions, more female nurses, NPs, and PAs have experienced sexual abuse, harassment, or misconduct than their male counterparts. (12% of women vs 6% of men).

Though power dynamics often are at work in harassment, this survey showed that three fourths of the harassers were in an equal or subordinate position to the person harassed. Only 25% were in superior positions, the respondents reported.

Behaviors often happened multiple times. For nurses, NPs, and PAs who reported people standing too close, the behavior happened on average 12.5 times in the past 3 years. Sexual comments about body parts were made an average 11.8 times. Explicit or implicit propositions to engage in sexual activity happened 8.5 times.

Unwanted groping, hugging, or patting was the offense that had the most impact on well-being. Nearly one third (32%) of respondents put it at the top of the list in that category.

The behaviors can have severe repercussions, Susan Strauss, RN, EdD, a harassment and bullying consultant and expert witness in Burnsville, Minnesota, told Medscape Medical News.

"Many who have experienced harassment and abuse will demonstrate such behaviors as post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, and lessened ability to make decisions," she said. "Many victims question their self-worth and ask, 'What did I do to deserve this?'"

Still, less than 1 in 3 of the people harassed reported the abuse to a direct supervisor, department head, or human resources. A workplace investigation was then started only 26% of the time.

A major report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine published on June 12 found that sexual and gender-based harassment is pervasive in science, engineering, and especially medicine, as reported by Medscape Medical News.  

It calls on institutions and legislators to promote a culture of inclusion that protects victims of harassment, increases transparency about handling of harassment, and establishes clear consequences.

The survey results included 6235 responders across 29 specialties. The margin of error was ±1.24% at a 95% confidence interval using a point estimate of 50%

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