The #MeToo movement in medicine can’t come too soon

I’m a trial attorney, and I’m a woman. Since 76 percent of all lead trial counsel are men, I know what it’s like to be a woman in a traditionally male profession. I also give workshops to women in the medical profession, and I listen to their stories of harassment. I’ve been following the #MeToo movement with interest. It started in Hollywood, and has expanded to Silicon Valley, to corporate boardrooms, and to domestic workers.

But we’ve yet to see the #MeToo movement have its moment in medicine, and that moment can’t come too soon. A recent NBC report on sexual harassment illustrated some disturbing realities. Fifty-two percent of women in academic medicine report being sexually harassed. Sexual harassment is as much a problem in medicine as anywhere else, and it may be more so given the traditional hierarchy in medicine and the fact that women make up such a small percentage of physicians. For example, only 19.2 percent of surgeons are women. Those numbers will change as more women enroll in medical school, but we can’t wait for those enrolling medical students to fix things. We need to address these numbers now. It’s a matter of life and death.

I think — I hope — we can all agree that being sexually harassed is stressful. Victims of sexual harassment have been shown to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. Being a medical provider is depressing and anxious enough.They deal with the stress of life and death situations, the grief of losing patients, and the constant spectre of illness every day. Nurses, especially, have to live with all of this and more. But they’ve also quietly and bravely lived with sexual harassment for years. A recent poll revealed that 71% of nurses have been sexually harassed. But this doesn’t just hurt nurses, doctors, physicians’ assistants, nurse practitioners, physical therapists or OR techs. If you’re a patient who sexually harasses your provider, you’re in danger too.

First of all, you’re in danger of being misdiagnosed. A recent study showed that difficult patients are 42 percent more likely to be misdiagnosed. Difficult patients were described in part as “frequent demanders,” aggressive patients, and patients who questioned their provider’s competence. Researchers attribute the difference to “resource depletion.” How much worse could this be if the frequent demander is demanding sex; the aggressive patient is physically aggressive, and the competence questions have to do with gender? When a woman’s resources are spent fighting off sexual harassment, there’s little left for the patient.

But even if you don’t harass your provider, you need to be worried. Harassment makes women feel powerless. We become smaller. We quiet down. And in medicine, that’s dangerous as well. When I give my communication workshops to medical providers, I share Atul Gawande’s research showing that when introductions are performed between members of the OR staff before surgery, the average number of complications and deaths dipped by 35 percent. That statistic is believed to be due to the “activation phenomenon.” When providers were allowed to speak, when they were recognized, they were more likely to speak up later if they saw a problem. When they don’t speak, people die.

A harassed woman isn’t allowed to speak, and she doesn’t want to be recognized. She wants to disappear. When she does, so do her eyes which see the wrong drug being prescribed, her ears which hear that the wrong side is about to be operated upon, and her hands which provide the gentle touch a patient craves. Every single one of us is a patient at some point in life. We are all in danger when our female providers aren’t at their best. Do you want all of your medical providers to be communicating confidently, with all of their resources at their disposal? #MeToo.

Heather Hansen is a communications consultant and attorney.  She can be reached at Heather Hansen Presents.

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