Could sexual harassment among surgeons put patients at risk?

Between April and July of 2017, researchers sent an anonymous survey to members of the Association of Women Surgeons (AWS) and the American College of Surgeons (ACS) asking questions about sexual harassment within their profession in the prior 12-month period. On one hand, the results weren’t really surprising. On the other, they may have terrifying implications for patients.

Here’s what researchers found:

  • Out of all the surgeons contacted by researchers, a total of 1,005 responded. In total, 18 percent of the female surgeons sent the survey took the opportunity to provide insight into their world — while only 1 percent of male surgeons did the same.
  • The majority of responders, 51 percent, were employed at academic institutions. Among the other responders, 15 percent were in private practices, while 13 percent worked at community medical centers and 19 percent in “other” types of settings.
  • A total of 58 percent admitted that they’d experienced sexual harassment within the last year — most commonly in physical or verbal form.
  • Around one-fourth of the time, surgeons experiencing harassment experienced unwanted physical contact or sexual advances. Others experienced harassing comments that referenced their sexual orientation.
  • The majority of the harassment, 84 percent, went unreported, either because the victim was afraid of retribution, feared the impact on his or her career or generally believed nothing would actually happen to the harasser.

Why is this news particularly bad for patients? For two reasons: First, the victim of sexual harassment is often negatively affected in extreme ways. His or her concentration can suffer — and that could lead to mistakes in care.

Second, it has to be questioned whether the surgeons who are perpetuating the harassment against their peers are actually capable of treating their patients with the dignity and respect they deserve. Sexual harassment is about power — and patients are exceptionally vulnerable.

If you’re experiencing sexual harassment at work in a hospital, lab, research facility or elsewhere — take the necessary steps to protect yourself and others. Find out more about your legal rights and take a stand.