Crossing the Line: Sexual Assault Cases in the NHS at All Time High

Taida Nando for Distilled Post

While the medical profession is supposed to foster safety, sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are commonplace. The media commonly portrays nurses as kind, empathetic, and caring, while doctors are presented as intelligent, professional, and competent. As a result, nurses are viewed as tolerant of certain behaviours from patients when providing medical treatment, from visiting patients, and even from colleagues. 

Violence In the Workplace 

As part of a study conducted in collaboration with Unison and the Nursing Times, 60% of 2000 nurses surveyed were found to have been sexually harassed by either patients or colleagues. In the same report, 39% said they had witnessed colleagues being harassed. Only 27% of those harassed reported the incidents to their employer. 

Three out of five respondents reported verbal sexual harassment at some point during their careers. Two-thirds reported experiencing visual harassment, which can range from winking to leering. 

This harassment is not just limited to nursing staff. A 2021 survey from the BMA reported that 91% of women doctors had experienced sexism in the last two years and 47% felt they had been treated less favourably due to their gender. In addition to unwanted verbal comments, 56% of women said they had experienced unwanted physical conduct. 

Amongst these statistics report, has also been ONS DATA, which in 2020 revealed that black people in the UK experience sexual assault and abuse. 

Keep Calm and Carry On 

Patient sexual harassment is a multifaceted and complex issue. Often, when patients are incompetent or suffer from conditions that make them confused, nurses are expected to be patient and understanding. 

Nurses are generally reluctant to report abuse incidents, especially when involving their patients. Their training emphasizes the importance of avoiding displays of repulsion toward a patient's condition or behaviour-leaving room for patients to abuse their power to make suggestive comments with very few repercussions.

Many NHS trusts do not offer dedicated training modules to prevent sexual harassment among colleagues in the workplace. The lack of sexual harassment training has resulted in more than 80% of all striking-off orders related to sexual assault allegations coming from male nurses, who make up only 11% of the workforce. Furthermore, the General Medical Council recently reported that 500 sexual assault complaints to doctors were dropped between 2018 and 2021. 

In short, nurses are fair game. 

Sexual Assault Prevention 

Although sexual harassment and assault among healthcare staff are not limited to female employees, statistics show that women are subjected to higher levels of harassment. The NHS responded in 2018 by announcing a £20 million funding boost for sexual assault and domestic violence services, including enhanced mental health services for survivors and victims of trauma. However, this was targeted at domestic abuse victims. 

As part of the government's efforts to prevent sexual assault in health institutions, the Department of Health has begun working with the NHS to introduce body cameras for nurses. They are similar to those worn by paramedics and police officers. The Health Secretary has also announced that measures to reduce the rate of sexual abuse will be put in place such as AI data processors to improve prosecution rates and the creation of a national violence prevention hub. 

Giving The Victims A Voice 

In response to an increase in healthcare staff speaking out, campaigns have risen to empower victims to voice their opinions without fear of disciplinary action, questioning, or dismissal. 

Among the most notable figures giving healthcare workers a voice are Dr Rebecca Cox and Dr Chelcie Jewitt, with Cox initiating the #MeToo movement in medicine and co-founding Surviving in Scrubs. Using testimonies of sexual abuse and sexism, the project campaigns to end misogyny in healthcare by bringing together collective stories to give the voiceless a voice. With over 100 women having shared their stories, the project has already made an impact, resulting in the hard-hitting report published with the BMA in August 2021. 

These shocking reports come at a time when junior doctors are on strike, resulting in chronic understaffing that has left many unable to report abuse. Unwarranted sexual advances continue to be accepted as a normal part of the job, without little consideration of the long-term consequences for the victims. The problem of sexual harassment from both patients and colleagues can have detrimental effects on well-being, mental health, job satisfaction, and overall productivity. At times, many women and men end up quitting their jobs to avoid the daily harassment. 

There is a need for all patients, staff, and visitors to feel safe in hospitals, but statistics indicate that hospitals are simply not safe places. Unless the NHS ensures that all staff receive active bystander training from the very start of their undergraduate studies, they will never be.