The growing attention to the #MeToo movement regarding sexual harassment in the workplace creates an opportunity to address this challenge that women continue to face in medicine. The prevalence of these issues not only significantly affects physician well-being, but patient care too.
“Sexual harassment can happen in any field to any gender. It is especially difficult in medicine because there is a known hierarchy and you really are expected to stay in place or stay in line because your career may be ruined,” said AMA member Tiffani Bell, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatry resident in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
She spoke during an educational session at the 2018 AMA Annual Meeting aimed at helping physicians, medical students and organizations learn how to identify and mitigate harassment and discrimination in medicine.
About 30 percent of women on medical faculties reported experiencing sexual harassment at work within the past two years, according to a recent survey in JAMA. Of those who reported sexual harassment, 41 percent experienced unwanted sexual advancements and 9 percent had experienced coercive advances. Nearly 60 percent also experienced a negative impact on their self-confidence as professionals, while 47 percent reported a negative impact on career advancement.
“Most of these events are not reported due to retaliation and not making it through training,” said Dr. Bell, a member of the AMA Minority Affairs Section Governing Council. “This is a really vulnerable population of women.”
While many who have had these experiences may be reluctant to report them, medical institutions and organizations not only need to gather data, but also ensure there are proactive interventions to transform the workplace.
Harrassment’s insidious effects
Experiencing sexual discrimination and harassment can lead to many symptoms of avoidance—one instinctively begins avoiding the stressor being experienced. Many physicians, medical students or health professionals might have a desire to leave work early or use more sick days.
If group meetings are not mandatory, many will also skip or make excuses if their attacker or abuser is there. Other symptoms include difficulty staying focused at work, while some people will quit their jobs or change career fields.
“The problem with all of these symptoms is that you’re avoiding work. If you’re not there, people who don’t know that you’re being sexually harassed will then see you as a slacker or someone who is not invested in your education,” said Dr. Bell. “That can lead to problems with your career success in the long run.”
Put a system in place
As an institution or health care organization, it is important to become proactive—it is a problem that has been around for a long time and has not been resolved.
“Shift the focus to make the employees in the room responsible for getting rid of sexual harassment in the workplace,” said David Gabor, a partner at Wagner Law Group. Having a good complaint mechanism in place, an employee manual or some level of training can help protect employees. Shift from canned programs—such as webinars—to interactive programs that can get people talking. By switching the power dynamic, organizations and institutions can help physicians, medical students and other health professionals understand the importance of solving these problems and addressing sexual harassment.
“If someone complains, follow up to make sure they’re not being retaliated against so they still feel like they are a valued member of the team,” said Gabor.
He also added that managers need to be ready in advance to handle these situations. Management needs to be trained to know what to do if they see something or someone confides in them—people need to know in advance what to do.
“If you are a victim of sexual harassment or discrimination, regardless of whether you report it to someone, you still can get help,” said Dr. Bell. “What we recommend is if someone were having the symptoms of depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts, you still want to at least get those symptoms evaluated.”
She also recommended having a mentor or advocate—someone who you feel safe talking to if you feel as though you have been sexually harassed.
Read more news coverage from the 2018 AMA Annual Meeting.