IT is a sad fact that bullying and harassment, both sexual and otherwise, occur today in public and private life.
Recent media attention to comments made by a Sydney surgeon have unfortunately suggested that this is so prevalent and tolerated within the surgical profession that our trainees would be best advised to acquiesce to such behaviour for fear of the effect of speaking out on their future careers.
I support the response of Dr Grant Fraser-Kirk, from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) Trainees’ Association, who, in a letter to all surgical trainees, said these assertions have been met by the profession with a “mixture of disgust, dismay and embarrassment”.
For the majority of us, this is not the defining experience of participation in surgical life.
However, there is no place for this behaviour where it occurs, and the victims should be encouraged to report it through the robust avenues available, which include the RACS, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency and the human resources department of their employing hospital.
They should be supported through the process of reporting and the subsequent consequences of the report. It is particularly heinous when such behaviour involves our trainees — those who have entrusted their futures to the profession and who are particularly vulnerable.
Our protection of their interests should be vigorous and absolute. Bullying and harassment should not be tolerated by surgeons at any time.
The surgical profession is made up of individuals who have devoted themselves to the care of others. It is a noble profession filled with inspiring doctors whose contribution to society is enormous.
My personal experience of the profession has been overwhelmingly of collegiality, satisfaction and friendship. However, I understand that this is not the experience of all.
Nevertheless, this is not just a problem for the surgical profession. This is a societal problem which we must all commit to correct.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of these recent comments is the effect that they must have on young women and men considering a career in surgery. To aspire to become a surgeon is to begin a life of service, satisfaction and some sacrifice to the rigours of acquiring and retaining the requisite knowledge and skill.
The suggestion that to embark on this endeavour is to also accept endemic abuse is untrue, unhelpful and damaging.
The anticipated findings of the recently created RACS Expert Advisory Group over the next few months will provide a framework in which change can happen and provide the background to target areas of particular concern.
The eminent panel, which includes former Victorian Health Minister and current chair of the Royal Children’s Hospital Rob Knowles, current CEO of Oxfam and previously Australia’s Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner and Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Dr Helen Szoke, chair of the Medical Board of Australia Dr Joanna Flynn, former Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police Ken Lay, RACS incoming vice president Mr Graeme Campbell, and incoming chair of the RACS Professional Standards Committee Dr Cathy Ferguson, are well placed for this task. The implementation of their recommendations will be the responsibility of all surgeons.
The past two decades have seen an increase in the number of women training in surgery from just a few per cent to more than 25% today. There is still much to be done to further increase these numbers and to make surgery a welcoming profession for all who wish to pursue it.
This will be achieved by positive and balanced portrayals of surgery, including of female surgeons, by mentoring, by cultural change and by strenuously rejecting bullying and harassment where it occurs.
It will not be achieved by the silence of the victims of intolerable behaviour.
Associate Professor Kate Drummond is a neurosurgeon in Melbourne and is the deputy chair of the Women in Surgery committee of the RACS.