One in Four Docs Report Recent Sexual Harassment by Patients

Marcia Frellick

July 16, 2018

In a Medscape Medical News survey, more than 1 in 4 physicians (27%) report that they have been sexually harassed by a patient within the past 3 years.

The percentage is nearly four times higher than the percentage of physicians (7%) who said they had been sexually harassed by colleagues or administrators in the workplace, according to an analysis of the survey data.

In the Patients Sexually Harassing Physicians Report 2018, published July 11, physicians said the most common form of harassment was a patient acting in an overtly sexual manner toward them (17%), followed by patients asking for a date (9%) and patients trying to touch, grope, or grab them (7%). In all three categories, the harassment happened more frequently to female physicians.

A much smaller percentage of physicians (2%) reported that patients asked for a sexual encounter or sent sexual emails, letters, or provocative photos of themselves.

Respondents gave examples of the harassment.

"A patient made a comment that he was going to grab my breasts if I caused pain to him while removing his nasal packing," one female physician commented in the survey.

Another female physician commented, "I had a patient who continually had the need to expose his genitalia to myself and female staff members. He tried to be intimidating in that he would attempt to link the exposure to a medical problem, when there never was one."

Types of Harassment Measured

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 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/physical contact, deliberate self-fondling, grabbing body parts, and rape.

Reactions to inappropriate behaviors differed significantly by gender. Female physicians were much more likely to report they told the patient no or to stop than male physicians did (62% vs 39%). Female physicians were also more likely than their male peers to dismiss a patient from their practice (11% vs 6%). Men, on the other hand, were more likely than women to make sure they were no longer alone with the patient (61% vs 51%).

When asked about reactions after the patient tried to touch, grope, or rub against them, 71% of female physicians told patients to stop, compared with 43% of male physicians.

"You have to be tactful in not offending your patient but quickly get out of the situation and get rid of that patient, because they could accuse you of harassment," a male physician wrote in his responses.

By specialty, dermatology had the highest percentage of patient harassment, at 46%, followed by emergency medicine (43%) and plastic surgery/aesthetic medicine (41%). Radiology and pathology had the lowest percentages, at 10% and 11%, respectively.

Physicians gave a few examples of what they have said following inappropriate behavior by patients.

"I've advised patients to keep the visit professional and they have obliged," one said.

Another said, "I was polite in my denial, reported incidents to my supervisor, who assigned patient care to another provider and spoke with the patient to discontinue attempts or he would be excused from the practice."

Overall, 6235 clinicians across 29 specialties responded to the survey. Of those, 3711 physicians were included in this report. The margin of error was ±1.61% at a 95% confidence interval using a point estimate of 50%.

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