Female surgeons, nurses, residents often face harassment in healthcare industry but may soon fight back

A physician in scrubs in a hospital hallway
Although hospitals and healthcare systems often have policies in place to discourage inappropriate behavior and some have confidential hotlines where workers can report harassment, other action is needed. (Getty/NanoStockk)

The #MeToo movement, which began as a protest to the mistreatment of women by powerful men in Hollywood and has expanded to include many industries, has yet to truly hit healthcare, but it’s just a matter of time.

The widespread misconduct toward and sexual harassment of women who work in hospitals and other healthcare settings has been such a longtime part of the culture of medicine that many say they either laugh it off or accept it as part of their jobs. But nearly a dozen women in healthcare who were recently interviewed by NBC News believe that the #MeToo movement will lead women who work in the industry to come out in force to push back against the mistreatment.

The problem is the healthcare system has a hierarchy, and some people in the most powerful positions use harassment to intimidate those who are lower in the pecking order, according to the female surgeons, nurses and medical residents interviewed for the piece. Inappropriate behavior has also been allowed to thrive because of access to secluded on-call rooms and beds in hospitals. And the stress of the job doesn’t help. Paul Spector, Ph.D., a professor at the University of South Florida who studies occupational health psychology, said that when people are under stress, they often lash out at others.

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Although hospitals and healthcare systems often have policies in place to discourage inappropriate behavior and some have confidential hotlines where workers can report harassment, other action is needed, according to the article. The entire industry needs to overhaul its culture so everyone understands what’s unacceptable behavior and women in the industry look out for one another.

“It’s got to be an organic change that comes from within, ” Elizabeth Raskin, M.D., a colorectal surgeon at Loma Linda University Medical Center and at the VA Hospital in Loma Linda, told NBC News. “If we don’t ever break the cycle, the people behind you face it as well.”

RELATED: Sexual abuse scandals: What hospitals can learn from high-profile Hollywood, government cases of harassment

In addition to establishing policies that address disruptive behavior, to truly make a culture change within hospitals experts say healthcare executives must be willing to investigate all complaints, develop an action plan to address complaints and consider peer intervention even before a formal complaint is filed.

RELATED: 5 steps to protect residents, medical students from sexual harassment

Training is also needed to explain professional boundaries, says Melinda Manning, J.D., director of the Beacon Program at the University of North Carolina Hospitals in Chapel Hill. She also suggests that hospitals consider designating someone to serve as a confidential advocate for staff to guide victims through the reporting and investigation process and refer them to services such as counseling, legal assistance and support groups.

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