Written by Joanna Hughes

While the entertainment industry may claim the spotlight when it comes to sexual harassment and assault in the workplace and the #MeToo movement, other industries are far from immune. One sector which may not elicit as much media attention?  Healthcare. And yet, according to research by the Center for American Progress, the health care and social assistance sector accounts for a staggering 11.48 percent of all sexual harassment claims across all industries. Here’s a closer look at the issue, along with what all members of the healthcare profession need to know.

#MeToo and Medicine

More than two decades ago, a study published in JAMA concluded that 52 percent of academic medical faculty women in the US reported harassment compared to just five percent of men. Its conclusion? “Recognizing sexual harassment is important because perceptions that such experiences are rare may, ironically, increase stigmatization and discourage reporting. Efforts to mitigate the effect of unconscious bias in the workplace and eliminate more overtly inappropriate behaviors are needed.”

Unfortunately, not only is harassment of women in medicine -- both practitioners and patients alike -- an ongoing problem, but it’s a systemic one. 

A Complicit Culture

Medicine is viewed as a traditionally male field -- even though women now account for the majority of entering medical school students. But just because women are more present doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. In fact, according to numerous accounts now rising to light with the #MeToo movement, harassment of women in medicine -- both practitioners and patients alike -- is pervasive.

Insiders attribute this to the fact that while the numbers may have changed, the culture has not. Trauma clinical nurse specialist Teresa Goodell told NBC News, “Part of it has to do with the culture of hospitals and the whole culture of healthcare in general, which is very hierarchical.” According to Goodell, this has led to the normalization of bad behavior. “You just accepted it as that’s just the culture,” she said. “We thought that was just the way that it was.”

And while nurses may be a common target for higher-ups, medical trainees also find themselves in the crosshairs. Making matters worse? The fact that fear of speaking up could cost them their careers prevents them from speaking up. According to colorectal surgeon Christina Jenkins, who as a resident was subject to sexual harassment by an attending physician in the middle of a surgery, “Everyone kind of knew and joked about it. Nobody really wanted to say anything, because nobody wanted to rock the boat. We were stressed enough,” she says.

Women in medicine who recently shared their stories about sexual harassment and abuse with White Coat, meanwhile, were willing to do so only with anonymity in order to safeguard their careers.  

Care Takes a Hit, Too

Sexual harassment and assault has profound detrimental impacts on victims. But the fallout isn’t limited to workers in the profession; patient care is often collateral damage when providers are immersed in this culture of harassment.

Contends communications consultant and attorney Heather Hansen, “A harassed woman isn’t allowed to speak, and she doesn’t want to be recognized. She wants to disappear. When she does, so do her eyes which see the wrong drug being prescribed, her ears which hear that the wrong side is about to be operated upon, and her hands which provide the gentle touch a patient craves. Every single one of us is a patient at some point in life. We are all in danger when our female providers aren’t at their best.”

Changing the Culture

The good news? While it may have been a long time coming, the #MeToo movement is raising awareness about sexual harassment and assault in medicine, according to AAMC News. Diana Lautenberger, MAT, director, Women in Medicine and Science at the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) says, “It’s important for organizations to realize that just because they don’t have complaints about egregious behavior, that doesn’t mean that [people] aren’t having these experiences.”

And this means changing the culture -- starting with addressing gender discrimination. “If gender discrimination is allowed, sexual harassment is more likely because there’s a continuum of this kind of behavior. Gender discrimination has to be stopped in its tracks within an organization’s culture [before it escalates to harassment],” Lautenberger continues.

Echoes Carol Bates, MD, who chairs the steering committee of the AAMC’s Group on Women in Medicine and Science (GWIMS), “We need a goal of zero tolerance of sexual harassment in academic medicine….“We really need to change the culture so that people report sexual harassment not just when they experience it themselves but also [when they’re] bystanders.”

Even better news? Medical schools are listening, and responding with new education programs aimed at helping all parties recognize sexual misconduct as well as reporting requirements.

But you don’t have to rely on your medical school to fix the problem. Whether as a voice or as someone willing to hear that voice, you can also make a difference. Insists Lissa Rankin, MD, “Sometimes all it takes is one woman—or one man—who has done enough healing work to move beyond the freeze response, someone who uses her scalpel to slice a hole in her trauma bubble and admits, ‘This happened to me.’ Then the rest of us can sigh in relief as we cry, ‘#MeToo,’ which also heals the original truth-teller, showing her she is not alone.”

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Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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