Sexual Harassment Remains Commonplace in Medicine

#MeToo in 2018 for doctors, too.

Posted Oct 25, 2018

Recent research from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has found that as more women enter science-related fields, the rate of sexual harassment has also increased. One reason, according to the research, that sexual harassment in science-related fields is so prevalent is that women often work in isolated environments.

Doctors working in hospitals, laboratories, and as residents are often left alone with supervisors, which account for 54% of harassment claims, according to a new Medscape poll. But there’s another side to this coin as well. Female doctors are regularly harassed by patients for the same isolating reason.

According to a survey conducted by researchers at Queen’s University in Toronto, Canada, 75% of female physicians reported patient harassment. We often think of patients being harassed by doctors, but doctors are often the victims as well. The difference is that most doctors do not report these claims for fear of public shaming, media backlash, or losing their jobs.

With the recent Hollywood-related sexual harassment #metoo spotlight, physicians are beginning to report incidents of both supervisor and patient harassment, but there’s still a long way to go before female doctors are protected from sexual advancements.

Some ways that female doctors can be proactive include:

  • Avoid being alone with a male supervisor or patient. You can and should have a chaperone in the room for a physical examination
  • Report any questionable behavior. There are channels set up for this specific purpose in most medical institutions.
  • Find support in numbers through connecting with other women. Knowing that you are not alone is empowering.
  • Reach out to a female mentor or work with a mentor. Telling someone about a harassment incident can give you the courage to file a report. 
  • Realize that you have rights as a doctor. You can end a conversation, examination, or doctor-patient relationship if a patient has a history of abusive behavior and you feel unsafe.

Fear is the number-one reason why female doctors and residents do not speak up about harassment in the workplace. In a male-dominated industry, accusing a superior of harassment or filing a complaint against a patient can often have negative consequences including job loss.

For residents, filing a harassment report can also mean the inability to obtain a letter of recommendation, which is the sole route to securing a desirable job. In addition, there is a real fear of not fitting in, not being considered a reliable team player, and of being labeled as “difficult” to work with.

Trust the women around you: In 2018, the support is palpable.  

Women in the medical world are starting to speak up and stand up for themselves and others. Spreading the word that female doctors have rights (and can file reports) is a start to making the medical field a safer place, which may also result in more female doctors entering the workforce.

While most hospitals and clinics have a system in place for filing harassment reports, women are still intimidated by the procedure itself and the possibility of a breach in confidentiality. The next step is a system in which reports can be filed safely and securely—without the fear of backlash.


N Engl J Med. 1993 Dec 23;329(26):1936-9., Sexual harassment of female doctors by patients., Phillips SP1, Schneider MS.