New Insights Into Sexual Harassment at Work: Medscape UK Doctors' Survey

Tim Locke

October 01, 2019

More than 1 in 5 doctors in the UK have been sexually harassed at work, or witnessed sexual harassment, according to the results of an exclusive survey by Medscape UK.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said these behaviours have no place in the medical workplace and called for better support for those affected.

More than 1300 doctors shared their experiences of being sexually harassed, witnessing incidents, or being accused themselves, over the past 3 years.

The data from the online survey, Sexual Harassment of UK Doctors: Report 2019 , show:

  • 21% have either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace

  • 17% had been sexually harassed by a patient

  • 3% had been sexually harassed by a colleague

The most common types of harassment by colleagues included deliberately infringing on personal space/standing too close; unwanted groping, hugging, patting, or other physical contact and sexual comments about body parts, leering or sexually looking at body parts.

The most common acts by patients were acting in an overtly sexual manner, asking a doctor for a date, or trying to grope or rub against them.

Of those sexually harassed by another member of staff:

  • 76% cited another doctor, 10% a nurse

  • The perpetrator was male in 71% of incidents

  • 56% had been harassed by a colleague in a superior position

Incidents Going Unreported

As well as revealing the scale of the problem, some doctors sharing their experiences reported failings in local reporting and investigation practices, and an environment in which more than half (56%) of those harassed did not report the incident.

Forty-three percent of all doctors in our survey believed that successful or senior staff were more likely to be granted greater leeway over inappropriate conduct.

The personal and professional toll of sexual harassment resulted in:

  • 40% adopting negative coping behaviours, including self-imposed isolation, binge eating, drinking alcohol, or spending more time sleeping

  • 49% avoided working with specific colleagues and 29% considered quitting their job

Patient care was also negatively impacted by the experience, 81% of all doctors who'd been harassed told us.

Sexual harassment by patients was more common in certain specialities, including general surgery, psychiatry, emergency medicine, general practice, and ophthalmology.

Harassment by another doctor was most common in anaesthetics.

Right to a Safe Workplace

Medscape News UK asked the BMA to comment on the findings.

In a statement, Dr Helena McKeown, chief officer at the BMA, said: "Sexist, disrespectful and discriminatory behaviour has no place in the health service or medical profession.

"Sexual harassment can be extremely distressing for those affected and this has wider implications on patient safety and quality of care, as this study highlights.

"There needs to be much better support for individuals affected.

"As our own work on bullying and harassment reveals there are real barriers to coming forward and speaking up, so we need a range of clear and easy to access channels for raising concerns, and we need to ensure when concerns are raised there is adequate support and appropriate and prompt action is taken to investigate and where necessary sanctions are applied in a consistent way."

NHS England issued a statement saying: "No-one working for the NHS should have to tolerate sexual harassment from either patients or fellow healthcare colleagues and if there is any suggestion of criminal behaviour, the NHS will work with the police and Crown Prosecution Service to secure swift prosecutions.

"The NHS is also investing £2m every year in a programme which offers mental health support for victims of harassment or violence."

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