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26 Mar 2015

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler has challenged the medical profession to “set the benchmark” in eliminating sexual harassment, bullying and other unacceptable behaviour from the workplace.

As medical leaders from around the nation prepare to gather in Canberra next week for a roundtable discussion on the issue being organised by the AMA, A/Professor Owler has declared that there is no place in medical practice for conduct that is offensive, demeaning or intimidatory.

“To me, the fact that sexual harassment exists is unacceptable,” he wrote in a forceful public statement published in several national newspapers. “The medical profession must set the benchmark. However uncomfortable it is, we must look at our behaviours and pull up the behaviours of others. If we cannot look after our own in the medical profession, then how are we able to look after the Australian public?”

His remarks came after the issue gained national prominence following provocative comments from vascular surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin, who said she advised junior women doctors not to report unwanted sexual advances and harassment from male colleagues for fear that to do so would jeopardise their career prospects.

A/Professor Owler said he wrote to AMA members seeking feedback on the issue, particularly claims that such behaviour was rife in the profession.

“I don’t know whether sexual harassment, bullying or other unacceptable behaviours are ‘rife’,” he said. “What I do know from the feedback…is that it exists – and this is unacceptable.”

He said the impetus for action came not from the alleged frequency of such behaviour, but that it occurred at all.

Several studies have indicated that bullying and harassment is an issue in medical workplaces. A quarter of the 747 medical workers surveyed for a study published in the Australian Health Review in 2012 reported to have been bullied in the previous 12 months, similar to the incidence identified in a study published in Health Care Management Review the same year.

Concerns that the extent of the issue has been underestimated have been underlined by claims that many victims are reluctant to complain for a number of reasons, including fears to do so could harm their career.

The Australian Health Review study found almost a third of medical workers who had been bullied declined to make any formal or informal complaint, while only a quarter of those who did report an incident were satisfied with the outcome.

A/Professor Owler said a key issue to be addressed by the roundtable was to ensure the availability and robustness of complaints processes.

“While I disagree with the assertion that doctors should keep quiet about sexual harassment for fear of jeopardising their careers, we need to ensure doctors, at any stage of their career, can lodge a complaint without fear of reprisal or discrimination,” he said. “The AMA and others need to ensure a safe environment for victims to speak out.”

He said there also needed to be a concerted effort to change the culture within the profession.

The AMA President said even lower-level behaviour such as negative comments and put-downs could be devastating for individuals, even though they may not consider it sufficiently serious to lodge a complaint.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 26 Mar 2015