Young doctors tell of 'rampant' sexual harassment and bullying in hospitals

Surgeons are singled out as the worst bullies of their junior colleagues in a survey that suggests harassment is ...
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Surgeons are singled out as the worst bullies of their junior colleagues in a survey that suggests harassment is widespread in our hospitals.

Bullying and unwanted sexual advances are "rampant" in hospitals, with young doctors often targeted by their senior colleagues.

About one in 10 resident – or junior – doctors reported being bullied or sexually harassed in the past two years, according to a Resident Doctors Association survey of its more than 1000 members. A further one in 10 said they had watched colleagues being abused.

Most complaints were about bullying or "inappropriate behaviour", but about one in 10 involved sexual harassment. 

Professional medical organisations say the figures reveal a hidden culture of harassment in our hospitals, which often goes unreported because younger doctors are fearful of risking their careers.

"This is an issue that we can't keep sweeping under the carpet," Ian Powell, executive director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, said.

Doctors who responded to the survey said humiliating younger doctors was considered a "rite of passage", and that abuse and sexual harassment were "deeply ingrained" in the medical community.

About seven out of 10 complaints were levelled against senior doctors, particularly surgeons, but the attitudes of nurses and patients also came in from criticism.

Sexual harassment from intoxicated patients packing emergency departments at weekends was also "common", some doctors said.

Deborah Powell, Resident Doctors Association general secretary, said she was taken aback by the prevalence of the bullying, which appeared far more common than the trickle of formal complaints suggested.

She was aware of one young doctor who had blocked a bullying complaint made by a nurse on her behalf, because she was scared it would damage her career. "There is a lot of fear out there," Powell said.

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Figures released under the Official Information Act show the number of harassment complaints received by district health boards from staff varied wildly, but was often far lower than the survey results suggest.

In the survey, about a third of Hutt Valley DHB resident doctors said they had witnessed or suffered harassment, which was the worst recorded result in the country. But the DHB's own figures show only five of all its staff lodged harassment complaints in the past two years, and only one was from a resident doctor.

Acting chief medical officer Sisira Jayathissa questioned how the survey information was collected. However, he said the DHB still took harassment seriously and had revised its bullying prevention policy since.

"[The] district health board has a zero-tolerance policy for any bullying, harassment or inappropriate behaviour in the workplace."

Tairawhiti DHB, centred in Gisborne, was rated second worst for harassment of resident doctors in the survey. The board said it had not received a single recorded harassment complaint from any staff member.

A State Services Commission report last year found that nearly one in three health workers reported being bullied or harassed in the past 12 months, higher than any other part of the public sector.

Sexual harassment of young doctors exploded into the headlines in Australia in March, after Sydney senior surgeon Gabrielle McMullin said young women in the field should probably accept sexual advances because sexism was so rampant that complaining could ruin their careers.

The ensuing controversy sparked the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons to undertake a review of bullying and sexual harassment in the profession.

Wellington surgeon Cathy Ferguson, who sits on the advisory group overseeing the review, said the problem was not confined to surgeons but spilled across the whole medical community. Bullying was always a risk in hierarchical, high-stress environment, where it could quickly become normal and often remained hidden.

"Because it is tolerated and no-one speaks out, it becomes accepted. But it is not acceptable."

The college's advisory group is expected to report back in October. In the meantime, the Resident Doctors Association has met other professional medical bodies and is pushing for a more accountable culture and better leadership around workplace harassment.

WHAT RESIDENT DOCTORS SAY:

  • "All kinds of inappropriate behaviours are so prevalent and overlooked in our profession. Sexual harassment and bullying is very common."
  • "Dysfunctional abusive behaviour is deeply ingrained in the medical profession."
  • "[Bullying] is rampant within medicine. It is a part of medical culture everywhere I have worked."
  • "But for fear of what consequences may come our way, we don't speak up. The medical profession is a small world, and hearsay can ruin a good reputation."
  • "The bullies are covered by their colleagues. It is hard as a junior to stop bullying by seniors when you rely on their signatures to progress."

 - Stuff

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