Survey finds almost one in three female surgeons have been sexually assaulted

Almost one in three female surgeons working in the NHS have been sexually assaulted in the last five years, according to a new survey.

Eleven instances of rape were reported by surgeons who took part in the study, published in the British Journal of Surgery.

The survey found 29% of women who responded had experienced unwanted physical advances at work, more than 40% receiving uninvited comments about their body and 38% receiving sexual banter at work.

Almost 90% of women said they had witnessed sexual misconduct in the past five years with 81% 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 research 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”.

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.”

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 presents “clear evidence” that action is 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 has “no place… anywhere in the NHS”.

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

It comes as a separate study examined sexual misconduct training among UK medical students.

The research saw academics at the University of Cambridge send Freedom of Information requests to the UK’s 34 medical schools.

Their report, published in the journal JRSM Open, found that only 53% offered “some or good sexual harassment training”.

“There is no standardisation of sexual harassment training across the UK’s public medical schools,” the authors wrote. “Many future doctors will not have received relevant education when they assume posts in the NHS.”

Lead researcher Dr Sarah Steele, of the University of Cambridge, said: “Our study shows it cannot be assumed that graduates who are working as junior doctors have received training on sexual misconduct before starting their roles.

“Considering the magnitude of this issue, universities and professional bodies should urgently address this problem.”