Sexual harassment by patients ‘all too common’: RACGP President

Morgan Liotta

25/10/2022 3:52:07 PM

The college says patient misconduct often goes unreported and wants more support for GPs who are exposed to inappropriate patient behaviour.

Female GP looking worried
The college is concerned that workplace sexual harassment could discourage more women from entering general practice.

The RACGP has released new guidelines containing procedures and advice aimed at tackling sexual harassment by patients, and is calling for more action to better protect GPs.
Almost a decade ago, a survey of Australian female GPs revealed more than half (55%) had experienced sexual harassment by a patient at some point. Around 10% of those had been sexually harassed more than eight times.
And while limited data exist on the current prevalence of sexual harassment of general practice staff by patients, RACGP President Adjunct Professor Karen Price believes it is ‘all too common’, particularly for females, and needs to be urgently addressed.
‘This is a discussion that general practice, medical colleges, health organisations and government need to have,’ she said.
‘This sort of behaviour will only discourage more people from pursuing a career in medicine – and that is the last thing we want.’
In addition to detailing the impact of sexual harassment and how it is dealt with under Australian law, the new college resource outlines how GPs can respond if they experience or witness sexual harassment by a patient, as well as how to help prevent sexual harassment by patients and create a safe environment for all staff.
‘This resource is desperately needed given incidents that happen every day,’ Professor Price said, who is also concerned the issue may be deterring women from entering the general practice workforce.
The RACGP President also believes there are gaps in the system that leave GPs open to vulnerable situations.
‘Although all health professionals must be appropriate and respectful in how they interact with every single patient, there is no corresponding requirement or rubric for patients,’ she said.
‘Instead, patient misconduct often goes unacknowledged or unreported and sadly GPs often take the brunt of this.
‘For example, if a patient has a history of acting inappropriately with female GPs in one state or across different jurisdictions, there is no mechanism in place allowing any GP to know what that patient has done in the past.
‘The GP is effectively flying blind.’
In the past, patient privacy concerns may have prevented some GPs experiencing sexual harassment from speaking up, but Professor Price advises there are circumstances in which it can be disclosed to ensure there is ‘some precedent or at least a base to build on.’
‘GPs take obligations concerning patient privacy very seriously and there are strong legislative protections in place for patients in Commonwealth as well as state and territory laws,’ she said.
‘[But] this is a challenging issue to navigate and must be approached with caution.’
The new college resource provides advice on how to respond to sexual harassment in the first instance and ongoing incidents, including a ‘decision tree’, and when to discontinue care when safety concerns present.
RACGP WA Chair Dr Ramya Raman encourages female GPs to raise the issue when they can.
‘I know it is easier said than done; however, it is vital that anyone subjected to sexual harassment recognises that this behaviour should never be tolerated and speak up,’ she said.
‘Standing up to patients who are behaving in an inappropriate or demeaning way and reporting sexual harassment is so important.
‘It is about achieving that cultural shift so that GPs feel empowered to say, “This is not okay”.
‘Enough is enough, the nation’s GPs deserve far better. Every person is entitled to a safe workplace and GPs and other members of the practice team are no different.
‘All patients have a responsibility to treat GPs and their teams with respect. This behaviour is never acceptable.’
According to Dr Raman, educating medical students and healthcare workers about how to appropriately respond in situations can help make a difference and achieve ‘long-term, generational change’.
‘I would encourage practices to implement the advice [in the resource] in their policies and procedures,’ Dr Raman said.
‘GPs would benefit … from more training and development concerning sexual harassment and inappropriate and demeaning conduct.
‘In this area, the focus is often on physical violence, which is of course something that needs to be confronted to keep staff safe. Something that could be of real benefit is simulated patient encounters so that GPs have the confidence to respond to inappropriate behaviour.’
Professor Price is also urging GPs and practice staff to help raise awareness of the issue and the action needed.
‘At the end of the day, to provide stronger protection for general practice staff we need better systems in place so that practices can do everything possible to stop incidents like this one occurring,’ she said.
In addition to the new resource, Responding to sexual harassment by patients: A brief guide for general practices, the RACGP’s Preventing and managing patient aggression and violence: A brief guide for general practices provides guidance for GPs and practice teams on proactively preventing and managing the risk and incidence of patient-initiated violence and harassment.
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