Sexual Harassment by Patients: How Doctors Handle It

Shelly Reese


July 13, 2018

In This Article

When Patients and Physicians Collide

The physician-patient relationship, by its very nature, is intimate, requiring strict personal boundaries.

But patients often violate those boundaries, as doctors, nurses, and other health professionals told Medscape.

Sometimes it's inadvertent: A patient who is impaired due to dementia or medication may say or do something sexually inappropriate. Sometimes it's intentional: A patient may badger a doctor for a date; grope a nurse; or become aggressive, insistent, and disturbing.

Whatever the circumstances, physicians say the events are frequent and often uncomfortable. More than a quarter of physicians (27%) Medscape surveyed say they've had at least one patient cross the line into sexually provocative or harassing territory in the past 3 years.

"The motivations vary," says Susan Strauss, RN, EdD, expert on harassment and bullying, from Burnsville, Minnesota. "There have been studies on why men in general (not just in healthcare) harass. The reasons are everything from misogyny to being very aggressive, to just thinking that this is what men do and that talking this way or behaving this way to women is a way to demonstrate masculinity. For some, it's a way to show that they have power.

"There are also times when, from the point of view of some harassers, what they said or did wasn't a big deal. They think to themselves, If somebody did that to me, I'd be okay with it, so why is it such a big deal to someone else?," says Strauss.

How do physicians and other clinicians contend with the situation? Caution, common sense, and a willingness to speak up are important, but there's more to it.


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