The doctors facing sexual harassment

By Sherie Ryder
BBC News

  • Published
Woman holding up her hand with 'stop' written on her palmImage source, Getty Images

When a doctor in Ontario, Canada, became exasperated with some of her patients' sexually inappropriate behaviour, she took to social media to vent her feelings.

In two days, her post on discussion website Reddit was upvoted 28,000 times and sparked 2,000 comments, which included useful tips and advice, as well as similar stories.

As a doctor in her mid-20s, she wrote that she loved her work but could not get away from sexual harassment or "creepy line-crossing behaviour".

Image source, Reddit
Image caption,
A doctor pleads with her patients to stop sexually harassing her

"Don't comment on my office's social media account about how you find me attractive and call me "tastey", she said.

"I just want to go to work and, at worst, deal with regular crazy not sexually driven harassment," she added.

As the comments poured in, she thanked people for their supportive words and shared experiences. The BBC spoke to two female medical workers who responded to the post.

Afraid and disgusted

Jennifer, a US-based medical laboratory technician, carries out tests and used to take blood samples from patients.

During her 12 years working at a hospital, Jennifer told the BBC she has been accosted by many male patients who were "usually elderly or drunk".

"They'd often try to look down my top at my breasts," she said. "One drunk man did this in the ER, in front of a cop, while he was handcuffed."

Jennifer says she finds her job incredibly satisfying and loves helping people, but she has been both afraid and disgusted by some of the behaviour she's had to endure.

"One man grabbed my breast and squeezed so hard it left a bruise," she said. "Most of them claimed they didn't know what they were doing while smirking and staring at my chest.

"A few of them just continued until I was able to get away. I can't say which was worse.

"I don't miss drawing patients' blood because of all the old men who would grab my breasts or crotch and then pretend to have dementia to avoid being told off," she said.

Lesley, a family physician locum working in clinics and hospitals in Alberta, finds her job very fulfilling but told the BBC "varying degrees of inappropriate behaviour both with patients and with co-workers happens most days".

One of the most overtly sexual comments Lesley received was from an older man who told her "those legs of yours are fantastic. If I were a younger man I am not sure I would be able to control myself."

Little support

Because many patients can legitimately have dementia, neurological issues, or be on heavy medication, Jennifer says there realistically isn't much they can do to address inappropriate patient behaviour.

However, she has not appreciated the lack of support. She said: "One manager said they were sorry that happened but there's nothing they can do about it - it's just part of the job."

One solution was for male-only staff to draw blood from those patients, but as Jennifer points out, there was not always a male member of staff on shift. "Legally we could not refuse to provide care," she said. "Nothing else was done."

Lesley says because she is a locum she does not have anywhere else to turn to complain. She believes if she held a permanent position, she could dismiss the patient from the practice where she was employed.

So, what's Jennifer's advice to anyone experiencing this kind of inappropriate behaviour?

"Make eye contact, then loudly and firmly tell them to remove their hand from your body part. This does two things.

"First, it tells the patient you will not passively accept their abuse. Second, it will alert your co-workers that you need help.

"Do your best to remain calm and do not physically escalate the situation."

In a manner Lesley says she has perfected over the years, she told her patient firmly and politely that his comments were unwelcome and inappropriate.

"It still made me feel dirty," she said.

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