By Apoorve Nayyar MBBS and Kristalyn K. Gallagher DO FACS FACOS
The #MeToo movement, with its growing visibility over the last year, has brought to the forefront the near ubiquitous prevalence of sexual harassment across industries, and healthcare is by no ways immune to inappropriate behavior. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) reported the prevalence of sexual harassment experienced by women in medicine to be highest within the STEM fields. For surgeons the prevalence may be higher, with studies suggesting that 20%-60% of women surgeons experience sexual harassment. On Twitter, the hashtag #MeTooMedicine resonated with thousands of members of the healthcare workforce, with physicians, trainees, nurses and ancillary staff all describing their personal experiences of sexual harassment. From lewd comments, inappropriate physical contact, and sexual advances to outright sexual assault, these accounts have shed a light on the dark underbelly of healthcare – existing for decades yet never addressed openly, leaving survivors to suffer alone in silence.
The two words – Me Too, convey to every survivor that they are not alone in experiencing sexual misconduct, reflect a powerful yet infuriating state of affairs. The movement helps raise awareness about rampant sexual misconduct and yet it is an unfortunate realization that our current systems and policies have let sexual misconduct continue unchecked in our workplaces. Study after study has demonstrated that fear of retribution prevents the target from reporting sexual harassment to institutional authorities. The growing #MeToo movement has highlighted the lack of institutional policies with protective mechanisms for anyone reporting sexual harassment. Countless women in medicine have experienced sexual harassment at work, fueling the gender disparities and discriminatory behaviors that have persisted in healthcare. The NASEM report concluded that workplace sexual harassment significantly contributes to discriminatory patterns in healthcare, decreased work satisfaction, career opportunities & advancement, and ultimately attrition. Not only does this impact the target’s career trajectory but thwarts scientific progress, medical innovation and impacts patient care.
The #MeToo movement also serves as a bridge from awareness to corrective action. It has brought the conversation of sexual harassment to the front and center of health policy making. The American Medical Association, at its house of delegates meeting in June 2019 vowed to adopt best policies for identifying and eliminating sexual harassment. The Time’s Up Healthcare (TUH) organization, launched in March 2019 aims to address sexual harassment in healthcare with improved awareness, research and advocacy for evidence-based policies with healthcare organizations to eliminate sexual harassment in healthcare. So far, thirty-five medical schools and healthcare organizations have committed as TUH signatories, pledging to end sexual harassment in the healthcare workplace. The American Medical Women’s Association has also partnered with TUH to develop effective anti-harassment policies to create a safe and fair environment for everyone in healthcare.
While these organizational efforts are an important part of the solution, it is incumbent upon every single one of us to foster an environment of safety and mutual respect in our healthcare workplaces. It is important for us to call out any inappropriate behavior; bystanders can be very effective in curbing any sexual misconduct. More importantly, bystanders can provide support to the target, acknowledge the behavior, and help report the incident (if the target desires to). The responsibility of corrective action and recourse should not only lie in the hands of the person experiencing the harassment.
Movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have facilitated an open and honest conversation about sexual harassment. Cultural change, along with effective policies for improved reporting mechanisms and due diligence will lay the framework for a safe environment for everyone. And while there have been some concerns by men about mentoring or working with women with concerns of false accusations, these are unfounded. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource center, the rate of false reports lies between 2% to 10%. These movements are not intended to divide the genders, instead to raise awareness and bring everyone together towards solving a shared problem.
Change is coming – sexual misconduct is no longer something that can be simply brushed off or pushed under the rug – it will be dealt with the seriousness it deserves. For far too long, far too many women have borne the brunt of sexual harassment at their workplace. This ends NOW.
Join @womensurgeons & @AcademicSurgery along with our moderators: Dr. Lilian Erdahl (@LillianErdahlMD) and Dr. Arghavan Salles (@arghavan_salles)for a tweetchat discussing the effects of #MeToo and #TimesUp in healthcare on Monday July 15th at 8 pm Eastern Time by following #AWSchat. If you haven’t participated in a tweetchat with us before, check out this tutorial written by Dr. Heather Yeo (@heatheryeomd) to know more.
We will be discussing the following questions in the tweetchat:
- What kind of discrimination is present in healthcare? Who is most vulnerable?
- What can you do if you are experiencing discrimination?
- Can the TUH initiative affect mentor-mentee relationships? How about co-worker relationships?
- Have you seen an impact of TUH on medical education? Can you elaborate?
- How can TUH have an impact on patient care?
- Which aspects of medicine are most impacted by the TUH movement?
Apoorve Nayyar, MBBS (@apoorvenayyar) is a first-year general surgery resident at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIowa_Surgery). He is a proud member of the AWS, a proponent of #HeForShe in healthcare and aspires to be a surgical oncologist. Dr. Nayyar’s research interests include disparities in cancer care and intersectional equity in healthcare.
Kristalyn Gallagher, DO (@DrK_Gallagher) is a surgical oncologist and Chief of breast surgery at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (@UNCSurgery). Dr. Gallagher’s research interests include novel surgical techniques for breast cancer care and achieving equity in healthcare.
Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.