Many new doctors experience sexual harassment, despite #MeToo

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Starting a career as a new doctor is an exciting journey, filled with the promise of saving lives and contributing to the medical field.

However, this journey comes with its own set of challenges, not least of which is the alarming rate of sexual harassment faced by these medical newcomers. Recent research has shed light on this pressing issue, revealing a troubling reality that demands attention.

A significant study involving doctors in their first year of work has found that over half of these new medical professionals encounter some form of sexual harassment.

This issue affects nearly three-quarters of all new female doctors and about a third of male doctors. Surprisingly, these figures represent a decrease from previous years, indicating a slow but positive shift in workplace culture.

The study, conducted by the University of Michigan Medical School and the Medical University of South Carolina, and published in JAMA Health Forum, highlights an increased awareness among today’s new doctors.

More of them now recognize behaviors such as gender-biased comments, unwanted romantic gestures, or even pressure for sexual favors in exchange for job benefits as forms of harassment.

Despite this increased awareness, the problem persists, with another study suggesting that both medical schools and hospitals need to ramp up their efforts in educating and tackling all forms of sexual harassment.

The research points out that certain areas, especially those involving coercion related to professional advancement, have seen an increase, although they remain less common compared to verbal or workplace harassment.

In 2023, over 5% of female interns reported feeling pressured into sexual activities for professional gains, a figure that has more than doubled since 2017. The rate among male interns has remained below 2%.

These findings stem from surveys conducted with thousands of doctors participating in the Intern Health Study.

This initiative engages newly graduated medical students, asking them to share their experiences through surveys and activity tracking throughout their first year of work. The goal is to better understand the pressures and challenges they face, including sexual harassment.

Interestingly, while more than half of the interns in 2023 experienced some form of harassment, only about 18% recognized these experiences as harassment.

This gap in recognition, especially between genders, points to the need for further education on what constitutes harassment.

The improvement in recognizing harassment, particularly in surgical specialties, suggests that awareness campaigns like #MeToo have made a significant impact.

However, the persistence of harassment and the gap in recognition underline the importance of challenging the cultural norms that allow such behaviors to continue in the medical field.

Research also delves into differences in harassment experiences based on medical specialties and training locations. Certain specialties, like surgery and emergency medicine, reported higher incidents compared to others like pediatrics or neurology.

This variation indicates that the environment and culture of specific programs and hospitals play a crucial role in addressing harassment.

As we move forward, it’s clear that creating a safe and equitable learning environment for all physicians is paramount. This requires not just compliance with policies but a fundamental change in the attitudes and norms within the medical community.

Only then can we hope to provide a workspace where new doctors can focus fully on their demanding and noble profession, free from the shadow of harassment.

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The research findings can be found in JAMA Health Forum.

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