How #MeToo affected the healthcare industry

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published July 8, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Although #MeToo has been on the US cultural radar for several years, many argue that it has done little to change the nature of sexual harassment in medicine.

  • Recent studies highlight the elevated levels of sexual harassment experienced by physicians at work and online, as well as by patients.

  • One way to combat sexual harassment—and advance the #MeToo movement—may be through additional training.

The term “Me Too” was first coined in 2006, referring to women survivors of sexual violence. In the years since, it has become a rallying cry against sexual harassment and violence on a wide scale. These issues pervade every profession—including medicine.

Although COVID-19 rocked healthcare of late and seemed to relegate everything else to the back burner, in the years since #MeToo took on hashtag status in late 2017, a case can be made that the problem of sexual harassment in medicine persists unabated.[]

#MeToo signifies more than just sexual harassment, and extends to other issues such as sexual discrimination, biased promotion at work, and unfair pay gaps.

But as sexual harassment is one of its main themes, let’s take stock of some recent research and see what can be done to address this issue in the medical workplace.

Relevant research

Results from a cross-sectional survey of 315 female family physicians from 49 countries uncovered shocking statistics on the nature of sexual harassment experienced.[] In total, 74% noted general sexist remarks and behaviors, 45.1% noted inappropriate sexual advances, and 21.6% noted forceful advances.

Notably, this harassment apparently didn’t diminish job satisfaction, which was generally high. The countries with the most respondents were the US and Ecuador, with 52.2% of participants representing high-income nations.

Sexual harassment also occurs on social media, and affects at least twice as many women physicians as men.

A 2021 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine explored the harassment of physicians on social media.[]

The authors surveyed 464 physicians (42.1% Americans; 57.8% women or nonbinary participants). Of these, 108 participants said they had been personally attacked on social media. The frequency of these personal attacks was approximately equal for men and women, although women were much more likely than men to experience sexual harassment (16.4% vs 1.5%, respectively).

Of the 18 study respondents who reported sexual harassment, 12 were propositioned, four recounted “too many instances to count,” and two reported threats of rape. One Black physician reported that a White supremacist had threatened to rape her because of her civil-rights advocacy.

Women doctors at risk

Female physicians are also at a disproportionately high risk for gender-based violence perpetrated by patients.

As explained by the authors of an editorial published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care,[] violent attacks by patients occur worldwide, and numerous incidents have been documented among physicians, healthcare staff, and trainees in all fields.

Verbal harassment is most common, followed by sexual and physical violence. The rates of severe events vary, as do the rates related to the provider’s age, specialty, education, and level of experience. But many reports confirm that females receive a disproportionate share of sexual and physical violence.

What can be done

Given the complex nature of sexual harassment of female physicians in the workforce, there are no easy solutions. Instead, a comprehensive approach may be required, according to the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care editorial’s authors.

"The multifaceted nature of interactions in healthcare professions among patients, our clients, and healthcare professionals warrants more caution, cultural competence, and gender sensitivity."

Khubchandani, et al.

The authors suggested that clinicians focus on:

  • Mentor and mentee relationships, professional socialization, and conflicts of interest

  • Professional codes of conduct, physician behaviors, and community standards

  • Legal implications, disciplinary actions, ethics, and confidentiality

  • Impact of digitalization, telemedicine, social media, virtual relationships, and privacy

  • Consent and decision making

  • Self‑care, wellness, and safety of physicians and healthcare workers

The authors noted that physicians should remain cognizant of the potential for gender-based neglect and backlash. Physicians are in a distinct position that involves a lot of interaction with others, so there’s ample potential for misjudgment and labeling.

The AMA targets sexual harassment in its Code of Ethics, stating, “Physicians should promote and adhere to strict sexual harassment policies in medical workplaces. Physicians who participate in grievance committees should be broadly representative with respect to gender identity or sexual orientation, profession, and employment status, have the power to enforce harassment policies, and be accessible to the persons they are meant to serve.”[]

The AMA also offers a training module on boundaries that may be helpful to all healthcare professionals.

What this means for you

Many female physicians are the victims of sexual harassment. For these victims and their concerned colleagues, knowledge can be power. When combatting the scourge of sexual harassment in the medical workplace, education from sources such as the AMA is a good place to start.

Read Next: Real Talk: When women doctors are victims of sexual harassment
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