BULLYING and harassment in medicine was brought to the public eye in 2015 in a rather dramatic fashion.
A Sydney-based female surgeon commented that female surgical trainees would be better off accepting the advances of their male seniors or else risk their careers.
The public airing of this began a process that resulted in a long overdue, independent examination of how surgery has become infested with behaviour that we feel, as a society, is no longer tolerable.
The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) committed to an independent examination of bullying and harassment in surgery. An Expert Advisory Group (EAG) was charged with investigating and reporting on this shameful hospital practice among RACS Fellows, trainees and international medical graduates. The results were concerning. Half of respondents reported experiencing bullying or sexual harassment.
Stories that arose from the report and the investigative process have been shocking and saddening. Behaviours that would be considered sexual assault have been reported. Racial and gender slurs, and threats of derailing careers, were all raised, and on more than one occasion.
The EAG report made a number of sound recommendations.
Last week, the RACS released a comprehensive action plan. It includes a drive towards promoting more women to senior positions, compulsory education programs and better complaints management.
After the EAG report was released, many surgeons have reported shifts in the behaviour of surgeons at work. The recent RACS Council election saw six of the eight positions filled by women. These positions are voted for by the fellowship group.
There is a renewed vigour for change among surgeons.
Unfortunately, this is not the end of the road for the RACS. It would be remiss to think that it should be.
I believe that the RACS has the opportunity to be a world leader here. And make no mistake, the world is watching how we continue to handle this.
I am looking forward to the implementation of the action plan, but what has been missing is a strong following by other specialty colleges, professional bodies and hospitals. The AMA did release a position statement on sexual harassment late last week.
Hospitals are, anecdotally, still employing staff members in all professions who continue to behave in a way that is completely unprofessional.
However, no other specialty college or professional body has come forth to publicly say that they too will aggressively investigate the prevalence of bullying and harassment.
A start is wonderful, but that alone is not even close to being good enough. A culture shock, not just change, is so desperately needed within our hospitals.
All staff deserve a safe workplace, and our patients deserve staff who are safe as well as being able to perform to the best of their ability. The RACS has done a truly good thing by admitting its problems, even if the impetus came from public scrutiny.
In addition to our colleges and craft groups, we all need to draw a line in the sand and, from this day forward, not accept bad behaviour — from ourselves or from others.
No longer is it appropriate to turn a blind eye, or place a tricky situation in the “too hard basket”. In fact, it never has been appropriate.
Now is the time to move forward and be proud that our hospitals and our professions are diverse, inclusive and safe places to be.
Dr Nikki Stamp is a cardiothoracic surgeon based in Sydney. She has her own blog and is on Twitter @drnikkistamp