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Sexual harassment in the medical profession: legal and ethical responsibilities

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Sexual harassment in medicine became a national concern after a senior surgeon warned that trainees who complain about these incidents are not well supported, and advised trainees that the safest action to protect their careers was to comply with unwanted requests.1 The surgeon referred to the case of Dr Caroline Tan, who was found by a tribunal to have been sexually harassed by a neurosurgeon who was involved with her surgical training. While Dr Tan successfully sued for sexual harassment,2 she reportedly faced substantial career detriment after pursuing her rights.1

While the prevalence of sexual harassment in Australian medicine is unknown, reports suggest it is an entrenched problem for both trainees3 and specialists.4,5 This is consistent with surveys in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden and Canada that have found between a quarter and three-quarters of women experienced sexual harassment in training or practice.69

Sexual harassment is an umbrella term covering a range of behaviour, from everyday exchanges communicating derogatory messages (“micro-aggressions”), through to direct acts…