5 steps to protect residents, medical students from sexual harassment

The healthcare industry isn’t immune to sexual harassment. Hospitals and medical schools must take steps to set boundaries between residents and medical students and the attending doctors who oversee their education, says one attorney.

Melinda Manning, J.D., director of the Beacon Program at the University of North Carolina Hospitals in Chapel Hill, recommends in an article for AMA Journal of Ethics that hospitals and medical schools take the following steps:

Have clear policies in place that discourage fraternization between trainees and attending physicians, says Manning. “Such policies help to establish clear boundaries between learners and teachers and eliminate some venues where sexual harassment and assault might take place,” she writes.

Provide training on appropriate professional boundaries for students, trainees and attending physicians, she says, as research has shown that a lack of education is a common factor in physician sexual misconduct.

Ensure the confidentiality of medical records of students and trainees, as well as those of all staff members. It must be clear that receiving treatment for sexual assault will not trigger a formal investigation, she says.

Consider having a confidential advocate on staff who can 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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Make sure policies affirm that victims will not face retaliation for reporting sexual harassment and that every effort will be made to separate their work assignments from any alleged perpetrator.

The medical field hasn’t been different from others in generating headlines given the national attention surrounding sexual harassment. In Boston, the mishandling of sexual harassment complaints against a doctor at a health clinic led to the resignation of its chief executive and chairman of its board of directors. And it’s not just a problem for women. In the Boston case, the doctor allegedly harassed at least three male employees at the center and bullied both male and female co-workers.