Research perspectives

Female doctors say sexual abusers in NHS “untouchable”

Female NHS doctors have claimed that known perpetrators of sexual violence are tolerated or regarded as untouchable in the service. A report by campaign group Surviving in Scrubs has found that victims of abuse within healthcare, mostly female junior doctors, feel gaslit and victimised.,

This report is the first analysis of stories submitted anonymously to the Surviving in Scrubs website. It is an analysis of 150 stories, detailing 174 incidents of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault occurring colleague to colleague within the healthcare workforce. 42.3% of incidents included sexual harassment and 36.8% included sexism, 20.6% of incidents involved sexual assault, 1.9% rape.

Those impacted include nurses, doctors, paramedics, psychologists, administrators, dentists, carers, optometrists, pharmacists, managers, healthcare assistants and healthcare students. 62.3% were doctors and 8.38% were nurses. 11.9% were healthcare students including nursing, paramedic and medical students. Of the doctors who documented their grade 88.8% identified themselves as junior doctors.

Turning to the perpetratorsthe report records that 76.1% were doctors, 7.4% were nurses, and 5.5% were managers. Of the doctors who were perpetrators 77.6% were consultants.

The report has a number of key findings:

Evidence of systematic and institutional sexism within healthcare and its workforce

A significant power imbalance between powerful senior male staff perpetrating sexual violence to junior female staff members

Perpetrators of sexual violence are described as being well known, acting within a culture of tolerance, while survivors struggle to raise concerns and face enduring impact on their well being as well as experiences of maternity and reproductive discrimination, reduced pay and lost training and career opportunities

The use of the unique healthcare environment for perpetrators to use one-one clinical environments, clinical skills training and patient care as settings for sexual assault.

A resulting risk to patient care as women healthcare workers reported their clinical judgements questioned, decisions not taken seriously, clinical requests being ignored, and referrals being refused.

The report recommends a number of actions to ensure safety at work for all those affected:

Education on sexism and sexual misconduct for all staff in healthcare including students, with a focus on responding to reports of sexual violence for managers, culture change, allyship and preventing sexual misconduct.

Research into the impact of sexism and sexual violence on the workforce via an intersectional lens and development of evidence based interventions to address the culture of sexism and prevent sexual violence.

An independent inquiry into the culture of sexism and sexual misconduct in healthcare.

Improved support for survivors, with access to specialist sexual violence support from independent sexual violence advocates provided by healthcare employers

A review of current policy and past cases by healthcare employers to improve internal processes.

Introduction of specialist sexism and sexual misconduct policies, separated from other workforce policies, available in every healthcare employer

An independent anonymous reporting system available across the NHS.

Reform from healthcare regulators to reduce the number of cases dropped before investigation and improved psychological safety measures for witnesses during the investigation and tribunal processes.

A system to improve communication between healthcare employers, regulators, and the police. Mandatory reporting from the employer to healthcare regulator should be intro

The authors hope that the findings will contribute to the wider understanding of the experiences and impact of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the healthcare workforce. Given the prevalence of the issues and behaviours they believe it is of national public interest given the size and impact of the NHS on every citizen at some point in their lifetime.