MAY, 2015

Bullying in hospitals  

It started with a book launch.

Dr Gabrielle McMullin was introducing the book Pathways to Gender Equality.

The Australian Centre for Leadership in Women could not have anticipated the row that would erupt.

Her comments were widely reported. Some condemned her for making ‘sexist’ commentary. However, they sparked some female surgeon’s to contact the media, with their stories of sexual abuse and cover-ups by hospital officials.

The issue of sexism in surgery subsequently exploded into the public arena, like a burst boil.

Dr Mullin spoke out on the barriers for women wanting to become surgeons in Australia

“What I tell my trainees is that if you are approached for sex, probably the safest thing to do for your career is to comply with the request, unpleasant as it may be.”
Dr Gabrielle McMullin

Stories of abuse towards female surgeons in Australian hospitals included:

  • Being sexually harassed then told “you should be flattered.”
  • Being called a “dumb bitch’ and ‘f***ing useless.”
  • Told to “get some knee pads and learn to suck c**k.”

Female surgeons stated that sexual harassment was occurring within a culture of cover-ups and fear.

“The worst thing you could do they said, is to complain to a supervising body”

Female surgeons referred to the case of Caroline Tan, a bright women in her third year of neurosurgical training at a public hospital.

Dr Tan’s complaints about sexual harassment from a senior surgeon resulted in her being given poor marks and facing threats of failure in her surgical program.

Hospital management failed to resolve the issue, and the case ended up in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in 2008.

Dr Tan alleged the senior doctor befriended her; then one day took her into his office.

She alleged he ‘grasped her unexpectedly from behind, spun her around, embraced her, kissed her on the lips, put his hand on her breast, pinned her against the desk, pulled his erect penis out of his fly then said to her

“do you want to go down on this?”

Dr Tan won the case, and the senior doctor was ordered to pay $100,000 in damages. This failed to cover her costs of fighting the case. The senior surgeon she complained about has kept his job.

Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Dr Tan has been unable to secure a position in a public hospital after in the case. She says she has no regrets and believes there is a culture of fearful silence in Australian hospitals. Dr Tan has also called for an enquiry into the mistreatment of whistleblowers.

There are high rates of drop out of medical programs among female doctors. According to Dr Ruth Mitchell, a neurosurgeon registrar at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, women are at least twice as likely to drop out of surgical training programs as men. While 52% of medical graduates were women in 2013, only 9% of fully qualified surgeons are women.

Despite one in four medical specialists being female in 2012, only 8.8 percent of surgeons were female.

Guidelines published by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in early 2014 declare “bullying and harassment are endemic in the health sector, between all types of staff at all levels of seniority”. 

However this issue is not limited to surgeons.

Studies show that medical students are being bullied in Australian hospitals but are afraid to report the culprits for fear it will jeopardise their careers.

In 2013, a Beyondblue survey of 1800 medical students showed that over half were emotionally exhausted, close to 10% showed high levels of psychological distress and about one in five had considered committing suicide in the previous year.

This issue came to the public attentions after the sudden, unexpected deaths of three trainee psychiatrists and an intern working in Victorian hospitals.

4 Corners has produced an excellent episode titled ‘At their Mercy’, in which Dr Tan talks about her experiences of sexual harassment and medical students speak out about serious bullying.

I believe the answer is to change the very nature of hospitals.

Move healthcare out of patriarchal, hierarchical institutions, and into the general community.

Make lodging complaints, placing limitations on practice and deregistering doctors and nurses far easier.

And provide ongoing legal and emotional support for new doctors and nurses.

People who have made the sacrifice of study and years of grueling shift work deserve support and respect.

If we can’t care for each other, why are we in the health industry in the first place?

©Wikihospitals May 2015

Australian senior surgeon attacked for remarks on sexual harassment – The Guardian 10th March 2015