* Written by Misti Blu Day McDermott for Healthcare Risk Management class
Me Too Movement and Healthcare Sexual Misconduct
Sexual harassment is a behavior characterized by making unwanted sexual advances, whether verbally or physically. This can take place in a workplace or professional environment. Sexual harassment is not excluded from the healthcare industry. The variety of circumstances range; however, some instances involve a supervisor and their subordinate. There are also cases involving healthcare professionals and the patient. Sexual harassment can interfere with work performance or create a hostile work environment.
Sexual harassment is a major risk in healthcare, as it violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (eeoc.org). Healthcare organizations should take caution to prevent and correct any sexual harassment behavior. Written policies and procedures, enforcement of policies, documented staff training, and immediate investigation involving allegations, are all examples of actions to exercise in terms of reasonable care (Kavaler, 2014). Management is at an increased risk of litigation, should they be aware of a potential case and dismiss action prior to the situation evolving beyond a liability.
The Me Too movement is an international movement against sexual abuse and sexual harassment; unspoken sex crimes and allegations were globally publicized in order to raise awareness and call to action a change. This movement has empowered many to come forward on their experiences with sexual abuse and sexual harassment. A report from National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) state that 58% of female faculty, staff, and students across academia have experienced sexual harassment in science and engineering (The Lancet, 2018).
I was a patient in the Emergency Room for cardiac concerns one evening, and I was personally involved in an uncomfortable situation. A young ER tech came in to run an EKG test to check for arrhythmias. As a chronic cardiac patient, I have had hundreds of these tests performed in my lifetime. As everyone has their own unique approach on how they perform the test, it is still followed by guidelines and protocol to ensure patient safety and an accurate outcome. As a female patient, this test can make you feel vulnerable because you are oftentimes exposed. Technicians usually find a way to keep you covered or if not, they remain professional during the test. In the experiences I am sharing, this was not the case. As I was exposed, which is necessary to access the areas required for the leads, the technician fully grabbed my breast. He proceeded to hold onto my breast, stating that he was covering me so that I was not exposed. As someone who typically has no fear in speaking up, I found myself speechless. The incident reoccurred when the male tech was removing the leads.
What many people fail to understand is that each generation is molded to dismiss these types of behaviors. Being a female, I have experienced sexual harassment throughout most of my life. It was just a normal occurrence, and unless you wanted to be fired from your job, you just ignore it. When I entered my thirties, I found myself in a better place to be able to speak up and learn ways to navigate out of a situation involving a potential risk. Even still, no matter how strong of a voice I may have now, I still found myself without one. After being advised by loved ones, I explained the situation to the human resources department the following day. I felt sorry for the technician. I wondered if I was ruining his life or getting him fired. Maybe he didn’t know what he was doing. I found myself hesitant on sharing the experience because I was socially trained my entire life not to. I found myself guilty and considered him the victim because of the consequences he could face. The hospital took the incident very seriously and had the police ask me if I wanted to press charges, which I declined. Afterwards, I then worried about the possibility of the technician wanting retaliation or finding out where I lived. Speaking up about being a victim is difficult on so many levels, and those who have never been in this situation tend to not understand that factor.
The Me Too movement has shed light on the unwanted normalization of sexual misconduct, resulting in people being more cautious of their actions, and empowering victims to speak up. This movement has only moved an inch, as our society still has a long way to go. Accountability, zero tolerance, and transparency in the workplace are recommendations for preventing sexual harassment in professional environments. Raising awareness and conducting training or education on the importance of avoiding discrimination against race, sex, gender, and social class is vital for risk management. Should I have decided to press charges against the technician and hospital, there would not only have been financial consequences but also the reputation of the hospital could have been jeopardized. Prevention should be a priority to reduce risks.
Kavaler, F. & Alexander, R. S. (2014). Risk management in healthcare institutions, limiting liability and enhancing care. (3rd ed.). Burlington: Jones & Barlett Learning.
The Lancet. Time’s up for sexual harassment in medicine. Lancet. 2018;391(10140):2576. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31428-4
“Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, http://www.eeoc.gov/statutes/title-vii-civil-rights-act-1964.