Almost one in three female surgeons working in the NHS have been sexually assaulted in the past five years, according to a survey described as a “MeToo movement for surgery”.
Eleven instances of rape were reported by surgeons who took part in the study, published in the British Journal of Surgery and shared with the BBC and the Times.
The survey found the 30% of female surgeons who responded said they had been sexually assaulted, 29% of women had experienced unwanted physical advances at work, more than 40% had received 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 concludes: “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 study 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”.
Tamzin Cuming, a consultant surgeon who chairs the Women in Surgery forum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said the report presented “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.
The BBC spoke to a surgeon who was sexually assaulted early in her career by a senior surgeon who pushed his face into her breasts in the middle of a procedure under the pretence of mopping sweat from his brow.
When he did it for a second time, she offered to get him a towel, and he replied “no, this is much more fun”.
The BBC was told the most common scenario was a junior female trainee abused by a senior male perpetrator, who was often their supervisor.
Dr Binta Sultan, from NHS England, told the BBC the report made “incredibly difficult reading” and action was needed to make hospitals safe for all.
She said: “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, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said such behaviour had “no place … anywhere in the NHS”.
Describing it as “abhorrent”, he added: “We will not tolerate such behaviour in our ranks.”