In more than half of sexual harassment complaints, doctors say organizations fail to act

A surgeon focused on her work
One in 10 female physicians say they experienced sexual harassment. (Getty/Jupiterimages)

Sexual harassment is a major problem for physicians and one that frequently goes unaddressed or is trivialized, according to a new survey.

More than half (54%) of all physicians who reported harassment said their organizations either did nothing or trivialized the incident, according to a new report from Medscape.

“The Medscape report underscores the need to take on the issue of harassment within the medical community and ensure that those who are victimized will be heard,” said Hansa Bhargava, M.D., a pediatrician and Medscape medical editor.

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Less than one quarter of sexual harassment incidents reported resulted in an investigation, according to the doctors and residents who responded to the survey. Action was taken in about 38% of those cases, including the harasser being reprimanded, fired, moved or made to apologize. 

The survey found that sexual harassment is as common in the healthcare industry as it is in others that have come under scrutiny in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

More than one in 10 female physicians and 16% of female residents said they have experienced sexual harassment within the past three years, according to the survey. Of the more than 3,700 physicians and medical residents who responded to a survey on sexual harassment, overall, 7% of physicians (12% women, 4% men), and 9% of medical residents (16% women, 4% men) reported harassment. 

“Now is the time to come to terms with the reality of the problemthat physicians are being harassed by other physicians, as well as by other healthcare professionals and administrators, and many victims feel that their complaints will not be taken seriously. Healthcare organizations and practices need to work to change their cultures and to fully investigate the incidents,” Bhargava said.

The survey results come a day after the release of a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine that said the response from academic institutions to sexual harassment has had a limited impact.

The Medscape survey echoes the findings from that report: Although sexual harassment is common, it often goes unreported.

Among the survey's other findings:

  • Almost one half (47%) of physicians who indicated they had been harassed said they were harassed by another physician (54% for residents). Almost 30% identified their harassers as “others,” which included administrators, nonmedical personnel and patients.
  • Nearly all (97%) of the female physicians who responded that they had been harassed said the perpetrator was male.
  • Of male physicians who were harassed, 23% were harassed by another man and 77% were harassed by a woman.
  • The most common types of harassment included sexual comments about body parts or anatomy, unwanted groping, hugging, patting or other physical contact, sexual remarks and leering, and deliberately infringing on personal space/standing too close.
  • One in five physicians reported being asked repeatedly for a date, and more than 20% were harassed with explicit or implicit propositions to engage in sexual activity or received unwanted sexual texts or emails.  Sexual assault, rape, promotions or raises in exchange for sexual relations and retaliation for refusal of sexual advances were reported at lower rates.

RELATED: It happens here, too—Sexual harassment occurs in healthcare field 

  • About half of physicians and residents said they did not confront the issue when the incident happened, saying nothing to their harasser.
  • Only 40% of physicians who were harassed reported the offensive behavior. Those who didn't report the incident typically feared that they'd be accused of overreacting or feared retaliation.
  • More than half said that reporting the incident had a negative impact on their job or was not taken seriously.  
  • Nearly one-third of physicians said harassment interfered with their ability to do their job, including patient care.
  • More than one in five physicians who experienced harassment considered quitting their job, and 14% did so.

The findings also come amid reports of sexual misconduct in numerous professions and at a time when the percentage of female physicians and medical students is increasing. 

“Incidents of harassment can damage physicians professionally and personally, and in some cases interferes with their ability to care for patients. We hope that the report findings increase awareness of the problem and contribute to change,” said Leslie Kane, senior director of Medscape Business of Medicine.