‘Culture of impunity’ for NHS medics who commit sexual assault

David Batty






There is a culture of impunity around sexual violence by healthcare staff in the NHS, with known perpetrators going unchallenged, campaigners have warned. A report by Surviving in Scrubs, a group of female doctors campaigning against misogyny in healthcare, said staff known to be perpetrators of sexual violence – most often senior male doctors – are tolerated or regarded as untouchable. The study analysed 174 incidents of staff-on-staff sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault anonymously self-reported to the group’s website. It found those who had been abused – mainly junior female doctors – struggled to get their complaints addressed. Some women said they faced threats of reprisals from those they were accusing and reported feeling gaslit by colleagues who remained silent and in some cases colluded with the perpetrator. One woman referred to a perpetrator as the “Jimmy Savile of the surgical community” and was told by a senior female colleague that “he was known for this behaviour, that he’d got away with so much before and he was capable of ruining careers”. Of the 174 incidents reported to Surviving in Scrubs since it was launched last summer, 42% were sexual harassment, a fifth were sexual assaults, 2% were rapes and 37% concerned sexist behaviour. More than three-quarters of the alleged perpetrators were doctors, of whom more than 77% were consultants. Of the remainder, 7% were nurses and 5% were managers. About 62% of victims were doctors, while 12% were medical, nursing and paramedical students. Of the doctors who disclosed their grade, 89% were junior. Of the incidents where the location was disclosed, half took place in hospital wards, operating theatres and clinics, which the report’s authors said also raised concerns about the sexual safety of patients. In one case, a female doctor described how, after a difficult forceps delivery of a baby that she had assisted with, a consultant, covered in the patient’s blood, propositioned her to share a shower together. Another obstetric and gynaecology consultant allegedly paused operations on women to ask medical students what the purpose of a vagina was “until he got the answer he wanted – that their only purpose was for sex”. Dr Becky Cox, the co-founder of Surviving in Scrubs, said a culture of sexism and sexual abuse had become normalised in the NHS. “When you’re [a woman] coming into this profession, you see senior male consultants who are derogatory, use sexist language and assault you. Male medical students see this behaviour and think that’s normal. Then they go up the ranks and continue to perpetrate the behaviour. It’s a never-ending cycle.” NHS trusts, regulators and professional bodies were failing to hold perpetrators to account, she said. “The women who have submitted their stories to us have tried to raise concerns and failed and failed and failed. It’s the system that’s failing because it’s not listening to them.” The report recommends setting up an independent inquiry into the culture of sexual misconduct in healthcare and calls for an anonymous reporting system across the NHS. The campaigners want to make it mandatory for NHS trusts to report sexual harassment and sexual assault to healthcare regulators. Dr Latifa Patel, the British Medical Association’s equality lead, said the doctors’ union would reflect on the accounts to ensure it is doing everything possible to support doctors who experience sexual misconduct. Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 500 2222 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland