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

While media attention has focused on the accusations of sexual misconduct among Hollywood heavy hitters, television personalities and politicians, the healthcare industry isn’t immune to misbehavior in the workplace.

Indeed, one of the biggest payouts for workplace harassment occurred in 2012 when Mercy General Hospital in California and its parent company, Catholic Healthcare West (now Dignity Health), were ordered to pay more than $167 million to Ani Chopourian, a former physician’s assistant who says she was fired after she complained of sexually inappropriate conduct, bullying and retaliation, in addition to inferior patient care by surgeons.

While USA Today reported that the judge later vacated the award after attorneys on both sides negotiated a settlement, the large payout should serve as a wake-up call to hospital leaders that they can't ignore complaints of misconduct in the workplace.

The recent high-profile cases that have made national headlines also offers lessons to healthcare leaders. Lawyers say leaders must:

  • Establish policies that address disruptive behavior: Healthcare organizations must foster a culture of teamwork and the need for a safe, cooperative workplace, Anne Murphy, a Bloomberg Law advisory board member and partner at Hinckley Allen in Boston, told Bloomberg BNA.
  • Be willing to investigate complaints, even if they involve a high-profile physician: Hospital leaders must be willing and able to identify and avoid sexual harassment claims and apply the policies equally to everyone. Employees must feel safe to report complaints and leaders must be willing to address those complaints and not sweep them under the rug.

    “Healthcare entities must take these actions in spite of the prospect of losing a significant revenue generator or a critical skill in a single physician,” wrote Katherine Dudley Helms in National Law Review. “Failing to address the situation creates legal liability and sends a loud negative message to employees regarding the importance the organization places on its workforce versus certain key employees.”
  • Develop an action plan to address complaints: David Jarrard, president and CEO of Jarrard, Phillips, Cate & Hancock in Brentwood, Tennessee, told Bloomberg BNA that organization must have plans in place just as they would other responses to natural disasters or mass shootings.
  • Be aware of red flags: Sexual harassment claims shouldn’t come as a surprise. Often, gossip spreads among employees, so leaders should keep their ears open, Jarrard said. He told the publication that senior leaders must be visible and engaged with employees and patients.

    “Hospital leaders might hear about suspect behavior simply by getting out of their offices and walking the hospital’s hallways,” he said.
  • Monitor social media accounts: Jarrard also said that accusations of misconduct often will appear in social media platforms so leaders should monitor accounts for mentions of their organizations. This way they may be able to intervene before the situation becomes worse.
  • Consider peer intervention: Clinical leaders might be able to diffuse a situation by talking to the person accused of misconduct over coffee and before a formal complaint is filed, according to the article.

“Now is an excellent time to remind your employees of your refusal to accept this behavior,” said Helms in the National Law Review piece. “Remind employees and supervisory personnel of your harassment policies, and refresh your sexual harassment training."