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Female surgeons facing ‘sexually assaults’ while operating: Report

September 12, 2023

In a comprehensive study of NHS staff, female surgeons have come forward, revealing instances of sexual harassment, assault, and in some cases, rape by their colleagues, the BBC reported.

The BBC News conducted interviews with women who experienced sexual assault within the operating theater while surgeries were in progress.

The study’s authors have identified a troubling pattern in which female trainee surgeons are subjected to abuse by senior male colleagues within NHS hospitals.

The Royal College of Surgeons has expressed deep concern over these findings, labeling them as “truly shocking.”

Sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape have been referred to as an open secret within the surgical community.

Reports reveal women being touched inappropriately while wearing scrubs, male surgeons wiping their brows on female staff’s bodies, and instances of men engaging in sexual contact with female colleagues, often with the promise of career advancement.

This analysis, conducted by the University of Exeter, the University of Surrey, and the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery, has been exclusively shared with BBC News.

The study’s results are staggering, with nearly two-thirds of female surgeons reporting incidents of sexual harassment and a third experiencing sexual assault at the hands of colleagues within the past five years.

Many women fear reporting such incidents, believing that it may harm their careers, and they lack confidence that the NHS will take effective action.

One experienced consultant surgeon, identified only as Judith, shared her experience of sexual assault during the early stages of her career when she held the least power within the operating theater. A senior male surgeon, in a distressing incident, wiped his brow on her breasts.

Judith describes how she felt frozen during this encounter, wondering why his face was in her cleavage. When she offered to get him a towel, he declined, stating, “No, this is much more fun.” The experience left her feeling dirty and humiliated.

Anne, who chose not to reveal her real name for legal reasons, shared her story of non-consensual sex by a senior surgeon during her trainee days. Although she doesn’t use the term rape, she emphasized that the sexual encounter was not consensual. It took place at a social event tied to a medical conference, and the senior surgeon exploited her trust and vulnerability.

Both stories reveal the pervasive culture of silence and fear of retribution that surrounds such incidents within the surgical profession.

The report, published in the British Journal of Surgery, is the first comprehensive attempt to gauge the extent of these issues. Out of 1,434 anonymous responses from registered surgeons, half were women:

  • 63% of women reported experiencing sexual harassment from colleagues.
  • 30% of women experienced sexual assault by a colleague.
  • 11% of women reported forced physical contact related to career opportunities.
  • At least 11 incidents of rape were reported.
  • 90% of women and 81% of men witnessed some form of sexual misconduct.

The report underscores the need for significant changes within the surgical profession, highlighting the disproportionate power dynamics that contribute to the problem. With only 28% of surgeons being women and a deeply hierarchical structure, some men in senior positions hold significant power, compounded by the high-pressure surgical environment.

The findings have shaken public confidence in the surgical profession, and recommendations for change are urgently needed.

A second report titled “Breaking the Silence: Addressing Sexual Misconduct in Healthcare” offers recommendations for addressing the issue.

The prevalence of sexual misconduct within the field is well known but seldom discussed openly. The culture of surgical training, reliant on learning from senior colleagues in the operating theater, creates an environment where women may feel unsafe speaking out about those with power and influence over their careers.

The report underscores the need for external and independent investigation processes to tackle the issue effectively. Healthcare must become a safer environment, and those who have experienced harassment or inappropriate behavior must have clear reporting mechanisms and support.

The General Medical Council recently updated its professional standards for doctors, emphasizing that sexual behavior towards patients or colleagues is unacceptable and incompatible with practicing medicine in the UK.

Despite these changes, the question remains: Is surgery a safe place for women to work today? According to Judith, not always, and acknowledging this uncomfortable truth is the first step toward change.

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