Survey: More than 1 in 4 doctors sexually harassed by patients

Female nurse looking stressed
Sexual harassment by patients is a problem for doctors. (Getty/gpointstudio)

Many doctors have to deal with a source of sexual harassment beyond co-workers—their patients, according to a new survey.

More than 1 in 4 (27%) physicians have been sexually harassed by a patient within the last three years, according to a survey of more than 3,700 doctors by Medscape.

Not surprisingly, more women doctors (19%) have been sexually harassed by patients, but male physicians (16%) get their share of unwanted attention from patients.

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That compares with 7% of physicians who said they were sexually harassed by clinicians, medical personnel or administrators in their workplace.

The most common forms of harassment by patients? Doctors reported patients acted in an overtly sexual manner (17%), asked them out on a date (9%) or tried to touch, grope or rub against them (7%). Female physicians encountered those behaviors more often than male colleagues.

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

How did doctors say they responded to patients who behaved inappropriately? Physicians most often responded by saying no or telling the patient to stop, made sure they were never alone with the patient, or even dismissed the patient from their practice.

The survey found that dermatologists (46%), emergency room physicians (43%) and plastic surgeons (41%) experienced sexual harassment at higher rates than other specialties. Pediatricians, OB/GYNs, and radiologists experienced among the lowest rates.

And while healthcare leaders are urged to take lessons from the recent high-profile cases of sexual misconduct that have made national headlines, a prior report from Medscape found more than half (54%) of all physicians who reported harassment said their organizations either did nothing or trivialized the incident.

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

One step healthcare organizations can take to help physicians deal with abusive patients is to create environments where doctors can talk about incidences of harassment or other negative interactions with patients, said Charlotte Grinberg, M.D., a resident physician at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a recent Health Affairs narrative.

She described two experiences where she was told there was no need to talk about incidents where male patients sexually harassed her versus another time where her supervising resident brought staff together to discuss a patient’s inappropriate behavior and let everyone share times when patients made them uncomfortable with sexual or racist remarks or gestures.  

“That requires awareness on everyone’s part that these incidents do happen, and keeping quiet about them helps no one,” she wrote.