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Addressing and Preventing Sexual Harassment in Healthcare

Sexual harassment in health care can have lasting effects on victims, including doctors, nurses and patients. The #MeToo movement has reestablished the need for changes in policy to increase prevention.
Cathryn Fraser
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When the #MeToo movement started to gain a substantial amount of support back in 2017, organizations everywhere, including Mayo Clinic, became aware of the need to raise the volume on the dialogue around the prevention of sexual harassment. Although we see this issue come up most in entertainment, sports and politics, it can also present itself in healthcare environments as well.

Healthcare has the dynamics that make sexual harassment very possible, because of the differential of power that is ever-present between physicians and the nurses, techs and patients that they interact with. Whether it's in the OR, patient rooms, or anywhere else in the hospital, you have people in positions of power working around the clock alongside people that don’t have that same authority, making this type of situation likely to occur. Here are some of the insights gained over the last four to five years that may help you and your organization.

Refine and Expand Your Sexual Harassment Trainings

One of the things we’ve discovered over the last few years is the need for clarity around some of the ambiguity that can exist when it comes to deciding what constitutes sexual harassment. There are obviously many situations that clearly fit into that category, but there are also many cases that could potentially be described as microaggressions. To address this, we’ve fine-tuned and expanded our training. We're moving beyond the common questions like "What is harassment and what do you do?" and focusing more on how we can create a culture of respect in all areas.

The 4 Roles in Sexual Harassment Situations

When a sexual harassment situation or violation of mutual respect occurs, we always look at it from four different points of view — the accused, the victim, the bystander and the supervisor. Part of what we want to do is affect how the people in these roles behave, both in the moment, and after these situations take place.

The Accused

In addition to the safety and well-being of the victim, the most important things we are focusing on are making sure that the accused is aware of the situation, and seeing what can be done to transform negative encounters into opportunities for improvements. It’s possible that for 20 or 30 years, someone has had the same behaviors, but no one has ever said anything. That's never a good excuse for being inappropriate, but it can be an opportunity to describe to the person what they did and how it made other people feel, so you can discuss ways to change things going forward. 

The Victim

Victims can often feel intimidated, ashamed, or like it's not their place to say anything after harassment occurs. They’ll say things like, “I didn't want to make a lot of fuss about it. I was okay,” or “I thought about it and I decided it was better just to put it aside.” While you should always respect their feelings, making them feel safe enough to speak up should also be a priority, so that the situation doesn’t just get pushed under the rug. This way, they can be an advocate for anyone who may be put into a similar situation in the future. When people think about helping others, they are more likely to speak up for themselves as well.

Bystanders

The people not directly involved in sexual harassment situations also have important roles to play. Bystanders should be encouraged to speak up and support victims after an incident occurs, but they also should be empowered to stand up while these situations are in progress. Addressing inappropriate behavior in the moment can have an enormous impact on the well-being of victims and can also encourage more rapid or drastic behavioral change in the accused.

Supervisors

Supervisors can play a big role here as well. At the minimum, they should be able to help victims report incidents to a compliance hotline or introduce them to someone in HR who can help with filing a report. But going above and beyond should be something to strive for — a little bit of emotional support goes a long way, so be sure to check in and see how the victim is feeling after having one of these unfortunate experiences. 

Be Proactive and Keep the Discussion Going

I want to encourage what we are calling a “professional pivot” as well. Many people, including myself, have been in a situation where they’ve said something that they thought was funny, but after a little while you wonder if what you said may have been misinterpreted. If you are feeling bad about it, I would encourage you to get in touch with that person and say something along the lines of, "I may have offended you. I've been thinking about this a bit, and what I said was perhaps inappropriate. I just want to let you know that I apologize for that. I really hope that you will accept this apology, and I will do better.” Instead of just depending on time to heal the situation, be proactive in considering other people’s feelings.

Keeping this discussion going is one of the best ways to continue to have an impact on reducing the number of sexual harassment cases that happen in the healthcare space — maybe you could have a conversation about it at your next staff meeting. Or, if you see a situation playing out in real time, step in and say something.

Changing the Climate of Your Healthcare Environment

Learning as much as you can on the topic is important as well. We’ve recently published a document called Addressing Sexual Harassment in the #MeToo Era: An Institutional Approach in The Proceedings, a peer reviewed journal, that talks about how we addressed this issue of sexual harassment and are continuing to do so. It goes beyond reporting and addressing incidents, recommending a systematic method to thoroughly investigate allegations of sexual harassment and to impose fair and consistent corrective actions when allegations are substantiated. 

Mayo Clinic will continue to address this complex problem, and we hope you will do the same. Developing a culture that is intolerant of sexually harassing behavior is at the top of our priority list. Everyone is deserving of an environment based on respect — which we’ll work towards creating for as long as it takes. We may not eliminate sexual harassment entirely, but I'm confident that over time, it can certainly become a much more infrequent event. 

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