“Try not to be alone with him… wear a wedding ring”: why hasn’t #MeToo hit medicine?

Victims of harassment and abuse in the NHS are officially encouraged to speak out. In practice, this rarely happens.

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I will never forget the time I was advised by a senior female doctor on how to avoid being sexually harassed at work. She stoically explained that in a male-dominated field such as cardiology, some form of harassment is inevitable. She gave me the names of repeat offenders and times and places where abuse was more likely to happen. “Try not to be alone in a room with him, wear a wedding ring, when you’re at conferences sometimes it’s just best to go to your hotel room in the evening and read a good book,” she said. She’d been on the receiving end of unwanted sexual advances by a consultant but had no plans to report him. Who would she complain to? His friends? That was over ten years ago, and I had hoped that with time and more women entering medicine, things would change.

With the recent #MeToo movement gaining such traction in journalism, the arts and entertainment, I wondered if there’d be a similar phenomenon in medicine. The proportion of female medical students has recently exceeded 60 per cent; however, it seems that #MeToo has largely bypassed medicine.

When I asked doctors about their experiences of sexual harassment or abuse at work, I was increasingly saddened and furious to hear that every female doctor I know, and many others who contacted me online, had experienced harassment or abuse. This ranged from inadvertent exposure to pornography, inappropriate sexual comments and “sexting”, through to sexual assault while they were at work. One woman said a consultant at a conference raped her, but as she had been seen drinking and chatting with him earlier that day she thought no one would believe her.

One incident in particular demonstrates how clinicians get away with abuse in plain sight: Suzanne (not her real name) was the only woman and the most junior member in her team. The consultant wanted to describe the course of a nerve in the leg and without her permission, calmly and slowly ran his fingers from her inner thigh down to her ankle. She was confused: was this assault? By the end of the ward round she felt angry and humiliated but said nothing. He had a reputation for being sleazy but the consultant was retiring soon. Besides, he did this in public and no one spoke out. “It felt wrong but I didn’t want to rock the boat,” she said.

In the UK, 40 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men report bullying and abuse of a sexual nature during their careers. The NHS has more than one million staff, who are trusted by the public and generally act in a professional manner. It’s inevitable that in such a large population some abuse will occur. Currently, there is no clear picture of the scale of the problem but most sexual abuse and harassment goes unreported. One review of studies in hospitals worldwide found almost 60 per cent of trainees had suffered abuse and harassment, with women reporting sexual abuse more than men and with consultants perpetrating the abuse in most cases. This is about power as well as self-gratification.

Victims of harassment and abuse in the NHS are officially encouraged to speak out. In practice, this rarely happens: while services such as the Professional Support Unit – which is open to trainee doctors in Wales – are a great source of help, most junior doctors that I speak to are completely unaware of these provisions.

Nineteen doctors were struck off by the UK General Medical Council for sexual assault or rape between 2014 and 2017. Yet, we haven’t seen the same level of public outpouring in medicine that is associated with #MeToo elsewhere. This is a world that is strictly hierarchical, reverential and has historically turned a blind eye to abusers.

Not one woman who told me about sexual harassment and abuse in the NHS had any intention of reporting it, fearing repercussions. The woman who was raped said, “No one would believe me and even if they did, my career prospects and reputation would be trashed; I’d be known as ‘that’ doctor.”

Nishat Siddiqi is a cardiologist based in South Wales

This article appears in the 26 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash