· News

Fifth of doctors witness or experience harassment

Many doctors have thought about quitting because of inappropriate behaviour from patients or colleagues

One in five (21%) doctors have either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at work within the last three years, according to research from clinician resources website Medscape.

Its survey of 1,378 doctors found that inappropriate behaviour most often came from patients, with 17% saying they had been sexually harassed by a patient. A much smaller proportion said they had been sexually harassed by a colleague (3%). Of those, 76% said the harassment was perpetrated by another doctor, 10% by a nurse, and the remaining 14% from other workplace colleagues, such as administrators.

Seniority was found to be a factor, with more than half (56%) of those who had experienced harassment saying it came from a doctor in a senior position. Forty-three per cent said they believe that successful or senior staff are more likely to be granted greater leeway over inappropriate conduct.

Regarding harassment from patients, the most common incidents included patients acting in an overtly sexual manner (53%), asking a doctor on a date (29%), or trying to grope or rub against them (24%).

The personal and professional impact on doctors who have been sexually harassed was found to be significant, with 40% adopting negative behaviours to cope (such as isolation, binge eating or drinking alcohol), and 29% considering quitting their jobs.

Robert Hicks, a GP and co-author of the report, said: “The healthcare clinical setting is often a high-pressure environment, with doctors increasingly reporting a great deal of stress. Doctors have a right to a safe workplace yet this report shows that many are still experiencing or witnessing unacceptable behaviour by colleagues and by patients.”

He added that it’s vital medical staff feel able to report sexual harassment: “This research has exposed some very distressing cases, with far-reaching effects for the individual affected and the patients under their care. It takes courage to report sexual harassment but to eliminate this scourge for good it’s vital that those affected report any incidents, and that senior management support their staff and investigate to the fullest extent.”

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, agreed that it can be hard for staff to report harassment. But the NHS has multiple routes for employees to do so, he said: "It is not always easy for staff to raise concerns when this kind of misconduct arises. Many organisations therefore have specially-trained staff in place to help give colleagues the courage to speak up. Freedom to Speak Up Guardians, Guardians of Safe Working, as well as chaplaincy, trade union and HR staff also offer support.

“These findings are highly concerning. NHS staff work incredibly hard under extreme pressure and they deserve every protection from any form of harassment at work. Sexual harassment in any workplace can never be acceptable," he added.