There is a culture of impunity around sexual violence by healthcare staff in the NHS, with known perpetrators going unchallenged, campaigners have warned.
A report by Surviving in Scrubs, a group of female doctors campaigning against misogyny in healthcare, said staff known to be perpetrators of sexual violence, who are most often senior male doctors, are tolerated or regarded as untouchable.
The study, which analysed 174 incidents of staff-on-staff sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault anonymously self-reported to the group’s website, found those who had been abused – mainly junior female doctors – struggled to get their complaints addressed.
Some women said they faced threats of reprisals from those they were accusing. They reported feeling gaslit by colleagues who they said remained silent and, in some cases, colluded with the perpetrator.
One woman referred to a perpetrator as the “Jimmy Savile of the surgical community”, and was told by a senior female colleague that “he was known for this behaviour, that he’d got away with so much before and he was capable of ruining careers”.
Of the 209 incidents reported to Surviving in Scrubs since it launched last summer, just over 42% (89) were sexual harassment, a fifth (43) were sexual assaults, nearly 2% were rapes, and almost 37% (77) concerned sexist behaviour. Some incidents were recorded in more than one category.
More than three-quarters of the alleged perpetrators were doctors, of whom more than 77% were consultants. Of the remainder, just over 7% were nurses and more than 5% were managers.
About 62% of victims were doctors, while nearly 12% were medical, nursing and paramedical students. Of those doctors who disclosed their grade, the vast majority were junior (89%).
Of those incidents where the location was disclosed, half took place in hospital wards, operating theatres, and clinics, which the report’s authors said also raised concerns about the sexual safety of patients.
In one case, a female doctor described how, after a difficult forceps delivery of a baby that she assisted with, a consultant, covered in the patient’s blood, propositioned her to share a shower together.
Another obstetric and gynaecology consultant allegedly paused operations on women to ask medical students what the purpose of a vagina was “until he got the answer he wanted – that their only purpose was for sex”.
Dr Becky Cox, the co-founder of Surviving in Scrubs, said a culture of sexism and sexual abuse had become normalised in the NHS.
“When you’re [a woman] coming into this profession, you see senior male consultants who are derogatory, use sexist language, and assault you. Male medical students see this behaviour and think that’s normal. Then they go up the ranks and continue to perpetrate the behaviour. It’s a never ending cycle.”
NHS trusts, regulators, and professional bodies were failing to hold perpetrators to account, she added.
Cox said: “The women who have submitted their stories to us have tried to raise concerns and failed and failed and failed. It’s the system that’s failing because it’s not listening to them.”
The report recommends setting up an independent inquiry into the culture of sexism and sexual misconduct in healthcare.
It calls for an independent anonymous reporting system across the NHS to address the under-reporting of incidents, highlighted by a Guardian investigation earlier this year.
The campaigners want to make it mandatory for NHS trusts to report sexual harassment and sexual assault to healthcare regulators.
Dr Latifa Patel, BMA equality lead, said the report’s findings were shocking. “[It] includes cases of sexual violence and harassment that have taken place without consequences for the perpetrators, demonstrated the barriers that exist to raising these incidents and how healthcare environments and structures can enable this behaviour.”
She added that the BMA would reflect on the accounts to ensure it is doing everything possible to support doctors who experience sexism and sexual misconduct.
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