More needs to be done about sexual harassment in health care

Having recently watched a cable television recreation of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, I am left thinking about how far some of us have come and how far some of us haven’t.

The confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991 changed the concept of sexual harassment in the workplace by bringing the issue to the forefront. By the time, I started residency nearly 20 years after the Thomas hearings, I had thought that just about every workplace had learned the lesson. In my case, residency was a transition back to my home state. Going back home, at least to my new hospital, was like going back in time.

My tale today is not about being harassed. It is about the harassment of medical professionals around me. A married unit supervisor did proposition me for sex at one point during my residency, but I never considered it harassment because after I declined, that was the end of the discussion. This is what is supposed to happen when an unwanted proposition takes place. What I saw happening around me, however, was a different story.

As I became friends with many of the hospital employees, a similar story about a particular department manager emerged over and over again. He stared at the women, rubbed their shoulders at his will, regularly hired and promoted women who had specific traits, and was known to have had romantic relationships with people under his employ leading to unequal treatment in the workplace. The harassment was so blatant that I could not understand how a disgruntled worker hadn’t attempted a lawsuit following what appeared to be decades of inappropriate behavior.

It should be pointed out to the public that doctors are most often not employed by the hospital. Doctors have privileges in hospitals, but they tend to bill separately for their own services, and as such, physicians tend not to be overseen by the same personnel in charge of the hospital employees. This is partially why medical schools work so hard to teach the tenets of professionalism and why doctors I had interacted with in the years leading up to residency were scared to death of saying anything that could be construed as harassment. This is relevant to me because, while I never made formal complaints about physicians, it seemed as though I should be relatively safe in reporting the inappropriate behavior of hospital employees to hospital supervisors. If the employees, my friends, couldn’t speak up, maybe an outsider should try.

It came to pass one day that I encountered several women near tears in an employee break room. They had collectively “anonymously” reported unfair treatment as a result of a personal relationship between their coworker and their manager, and their manager responded by cursing the employees out during a staff meeting. The employees felt threatened and that the hospital was not protecting them at all. I decided that it was time to do the right thing, so I sent an email to a hospital administrator explaining what the employees were saying, as even the implications of such retaliation would have serious liability issues.

Most companies have a fairly standard policy when it comes to harassment claims, so I thought. An allegation is supposed to be investigated confidentially, and a report is generally given back to the person who submitted the concern. When my email was unanswered by anyone, I decided to let it go because the employees themselves didn’t want to pursue it. The employees were scared of being fired if they said anything, and it seemed like nothing they did would help.

I had thought that the issue had dissipated away until doctors started making odd comments to me such as, “Don’t report me,” and “I’d better be quiet around you.” I later came to find out that instead of letting me know that the issue was being investigated, the hospital administrator gave my name to my program director and said that I was causing problems. After graduating, I applied to a fellowship program offered at the medical school sponsoring my residency, and they opted not to fill the position at all rather than risk my presence. I became persona non grata in my own home for doing the right thing. This is the other side of the coin when it comes to so-called non-retaliation policies. You may not get fired for reporting, but if you want a job somewhere else, good luck to you. The culture at this hospital had gotten so out-of-control that there was really nothing that could be done.

If anyone reading this has experienced harassment, pursue your claim until you eventually get to somebody who understands the difference between what is right and what is wrong. When my report was unanswered, I should have done more, but don’t let my weakness deter you from doing the right thing because if you report it yourself, it’s likely that someone else is in the same predicament. It’s unlikely that you will find yourself on the same national platform as Anita Hill, but you can make a difference. The stakes were just too high for me to continue to escalate up the chain, but if any of my friends are reading this today, I am sorry.

The author is an anonymous physician.

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