NHS faces ‘MeToo moment’ as female surgeons reveal shocking scale of sexual assaults in hospitals

The survey represents ‘MeToo moment for surgery’, says head of Women in Surgery forum

Rob Freeman
Tuesday 12 September 2023 14:19 BST
The TUC said stagnant wages had played a major role in the ‘crippling’ staff shortages facing the NHS (Lynne Cameron/PA)
The TUC said stagnant wages had played a major role in the ‘crippling’ staff shortages facing the NHS (Lynne Cameron/PA)

Female surgeons report being sexually assaulted, harassed and in some instances raped by colleagues, according to a shocking new survey described as a ‘MeToo’ moment for surgery.

Almost one in three female surgeons working in the NHS have been sexually assaulted in the last five years, while eleven instances of rape were reported by surgeons who took part in the study, published in the British Journal of Surgery.

The survey, which raises further questions about the hierarchical structures in the NHS, found that more than 40 per cent of female surgeons received uninvited comments about their body and 38 per cent receiving sexual banter at work.

Other examples included groping, lewd remarks or unwanted advances. Almost 90 per cent of women said they had witnessed sexual misconduct in the past five years with 81 per cent of men giving the same answer.

The report concluded: “Sexual misconduct occurs frequently and appears to go unchecked in the surgical environment owing to a combination of a deeply hierarchical structure and a gender and power imbalance.

“The result is an unsafe working environment and an unsafe space for patients.”

Compiled by the University of Exeter from 1,436 responses to an anonymous online survey, the survey was commissioned by The Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery – a group of NHS surgeons, clinicians and researchers who say they are “working to raise awareness of sexual misconduct in surgery, to bring about cultural and organisational change”.

Consultant surgeon Tamzin Cuming, who chairs the Women in Surgery forum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said the report presents “some of the most appalling facts ever to come out” about the field and “represents a MeToo moment for surgery”.

No one should need to call for a code of conduct that says, in essence, 'please do not molest your work colleagues or students'

Consultant surgeon Tamzin Cuming

Writing in The Times, she said: “Our research reveals an environment where sexual assault, harassment and rape can occur among staff working in surgery but allows it to be ignored because the system protects those carrying it out rather than those affected.

“We need urgent change in the oversight of how healthcare investigates itself.”

She called for the creation of a national implementation panel to oversee action on the report’s recommendations and for incidents of sexual misconduct to be independently investigated.

She said: “No one should need to call for a code of conduct that says, in essence, ‘please do not molest your work colleagues or students’, and yet this is one of the actions our report recommends.

“The report is measured, its recommendations achievable, but this shouldn’t disguise the anger and frustration felt by many in our profession.

Sexual misconduct occurs frequently and appears to go unchecked in the surgical environment

Report findings

The results have been presented to NHS England, the General Medical Council and the British Medical Association.

Dr Binta Sultan, who chairs NHS England’s national clinical network of sexual assault and abuse services, said the report presented “clear evidence” that action was needed to make hospitals a safer environment.

She told the BBC: “We are already taking significant steps to do this, including through commitments to provide more support and clear reporting mechanisms to those who have suffered harassment or inappropriate behaviour.”

Tim Mitchell, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said such behaviour had “no place… anywhere in the NHS”.

Describing it as “abhorrent”, he said: “We will not tolerate such behaviour in our ranks.”

He told the BBC the findings were “deeply shocking and will be a source of great embarrassment to the surgical profession”.

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