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Medical Practices Must do More to Fight Sexual Harassment
Danielle Max | December 19, 2017

Time magazine named the #MeToo movement, the social media campaign that prompted millions of women to share personal stories of harassment and abuse, “Person of the Year” for 2017. Among the women featured on the front cover is a hospital worker – or at least her arm – representing all those who cannot speak out about the abuse they endured.

While most #MeToo stories spoke of common, everyday harassment, many women reported horrifying stories from their workplaces – places that should be safe, protected from bullying and abuse. Shamefully for our industry, these included surgical practices and hospitals.

According to a report in Becker’s Hospital Review, citing data from BuzzFeed News, between 1995 and 2016, at least 3,085 hospital employees filed sexual harassment claims. That this sounds like an improbably low figure for a 21-year period says much about the culture of fear in what is still a male-dominated industry.


According to the AAMC’s report into Active Physicians by Sex and Specialty, 2015, men in senior positions far outweigh women in many specialties.



Specialty # Men # Women
Orthopedic 18,191 (95%) 951 (5%)
Thoracic 4,213 (94%) 271 (6%)
General 20,398 (80.8%) 4,835 (19.2%)



The only fields where senior female physicians outnumber their male counterparts are Pediatrics, Obstetrics & Gynecology, and Pediatric Hematology/Oncology. (We wrote about gender inequality in a post last year.)


A 2016 study in Medscape claims that 71 percent of female physicians and 25 percent of male physicians reported having been sexually harassed during their training or working at a medical practice.


While male-dominated environments often create situations where women practitioners and ancillary staff feel ill at ease or vulnerable, it’s important to remember that male workers can be harassed by female employees, sexually and otherwise, and that same-sex harassment is also not uncommon.


A surgical practice, like any other workplace, can take proactive steps to ensure that sexual harassment is not tolerated in the office culture.


1. Have a written sexual harassment policy – and talk about it

This is the first stage in making a clear statement that sexual harassment, no matter the perpetrator or circumstance, will not be tolerated. Many practices already display their policy in the lunchroom or another public space. But more proactive steps should be considered. Like making sure all new staff are made aware of the policies through an onboarding session when they join the practice. Employees should know the process for submitting a complaint, and need to be reassured that their complaint will be taken seriously and not threaten their career prospects. An annual session on sexual harassment for all staff members could go a long way to reinforce the seriousness of the matter.



2. Maintain a professional office environment

Often, workmates can begin to feel, and behave like family. People drop their guard and formalities are cast aside, giving way to a more laid back atmosphere. Everyone loves having fun at work, but ensure that joking, fraternizing and a relaxed environment are a positive contribution to practice culture and don’t pave the way for inappropriate behavior.


3. Avoid office romances between management and staff

You can’t help who you fall in love with, and where. While every practice needs to decide its own rules governing matters of the heart, a zero tolerance policy is recommended when it comes to relationships between superiors and juniors. This is designed to prevent the junior employee – male or female – from being in a position where they may feel they owe something to their boss, or to their boss’s boss.



4. Take immediate action when harassment is reported

There’s no better way of proving the integrity of your harassment policy than by taking all allegations seriously. This means taking immediate action to investigate incidents brought to the attention of Human Resources. If there is no HR department, employees need to know which senior staff member or members to report to.



5. Practice what you preach

This one seems obvious, but the best way to avoid claims of sexual harassment is to avoid harassing others in the first place. We’re not saying censor everything you say and do, but thinking before you speak and act can go a long way to making sure colleagues and employees never feel uncomfortable around you and that your words and actions will not be misinterpreted.


6. Get buy-in from senior management

Without the support and commitment of the surgeons and other senior management, good intentions will remain just that. #MeToo started as a grassroots conversation around sexual harassment, but the real change occurred when celebrities and women of influence spoke out and elevated the conversation to the C-Suite.



All the actions prescribed above have one thing in common: they all require broad-reaching organizational change. If the medical industry is serious about reducing sexual harassment, then every surgical practice, clinic and hospital must do their part.


The #MeToo campaign was a clarion call for society at large to recognize and fight this phenomenon. May 2018 be the year that our industry resolves to do so.

Surgimate staff and others recommend
About the author: Danielle Max has a penchant for good organization and is on a constant mission to live a paper-free life. She loves to travel and dreams of finally visiting (the very organized) Japan one day.
Published on December 19, 2017. All rights reserved by the author.
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