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Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery report welcomed by abuse lawyers

Lawyers working on behalf of medical staff who have experienced sexual abuse in the healthcare workplace welcomed the focus given to the issue nationally this week.

Posted on 13 September 2023

The BBC reported a survey of NHS staff that revealed female surgeons had experienced sexual abuse while at work with “a pattern” of female trainees being abused by senior male surgeons.

The study, published in the British Journal of Surgery, found almost one in three female surgeons have been sexually assaulted in the past five years.

Eleven instances of rape were reported by surgeons who took part in the study, commissioned by The Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery, a group of NHS surgeons, clinicians and researchers.

Figures published in May showed more than 35,000 incidents of sexual misconduct or sexual violence were recorded in the NHS in England between 2017 and 2022, reported Press Association.

The survey results were compiled by the University of Exeter from 1,436 responses to an anonymous online survey.

The report concluded: “Sexual misconduct occurs frequently and appears to go unchecked in the surgical environment owing to a combination of a deeply hierarchical structure and a gender and power imbalance. The result is an unsafe working environment and an unsafe space for patients.”

The report follows a campaign launched last year and welcomed by head of Leigh Day’s abuse team, Alison Millar, Surviving in Scrubs which invited healthcare workers to submit their stories of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault, which campaign leaders said was commonplace. Alison Millar recently settled a claim on behalf of a client who described sexual harassment at work in the NHS.

Welcoming the spotlight being shone on the issue again this week, Leigh Day abuse solicitor Catriona Rubens, who also represents survivors of abuse in healthcare, said updated General Medical Council (GMC) conduct guidelines were a timely development.

Now conduct guidelines on UK doctors specify what constitutes workplace sexual harassment, and the GMC has announced a zero tolerance policy. The guidance says doctors ‘must not act in a sexual way towards colleagues with the effect or purpose of causing offence, embarrassment, humiliation or distress’. The standards make clear this includes verbal or written comments and displaying or sharing images, as well as physical contact.

Leigh Day solicitor Catriona Rubens said:

“We are shocked but unsurprised by the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery’s findings that 63% of female surgeons surveyed had experienced sexual harassment at work. Hospital environments can be closed cultures where red flags for abuse and mistreatment are not swiftly acted upon, enabling harassment to be tolerated as “part of the job”.

"Staff we have represented have received poor responses from NHS Trusts to their complaints of sexual harassment; investigations can be long and drawn out, with little support for the victim. In our experience, Trusts do not always make timely referrals to the police or the GMC, leaving it to the victim to drive the investigation process.

“The regulator for doctors, the GMC, must do better to support complainants. It is telling that only 15.1% of women surgeons felt that the GMC was adequately handling issues of sexual misconduct. Whilst the GMC’s new standards of zero tolerance on sexual harassment are welcome, this must be accompanied by urgent reform of the disciplinary process so that complaints are swiftly investigated, and victims are properly protected throughout the proceedings. Too often, staff who make complaints are ostracised and left to deal with the fall out – including the impact on their own career – alone.”

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Cat Rubens
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Catriona Rubens

Catriona Rubens is a senior associate solicitor in the abuse team.

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