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12 Mar 2015

Bullying and harassment in Victorian public hospitals is to be investigated as part of a broader inquiry into workplaces conditions flagged by State Health Minister Jill Hennessy.

The resignation of a senior surgeon from Melbourne’s The Alfred hospital amid numerous allegations of sexual harassment has intensified the focus on concerns that junior doctors and other medical workers have been the subject of inappropriate conduct by senior practitioners.

Ms Hennessy told the ABC she will ask the Victorian Auditor-General to investigate how complaints of workplace bullying and harassment are being handled within the State’s public hospital system.

“It is vital that hospitals have a robust complaints process in place to separately ensure concerns are addressed in a confidential, accountable and professional manner,” the Minister told the ABC, adding that the inquiry should include “the nature and extent of bullying and harassment and other workplace-related complaints, and the strength and weakness of current complaints mechanisms.”

In a statement released late last night, Alfred Health Chief Executive Associate Professor Andrew Way said his organisation did not tolerate inappropriate workplace behaviour by staff, and described claims of sexual harassment brought forward by a former employee were “highly concerning”.

“This type of behaviour, amongst any group of staff, is totally unacceptable, and [the] best course of action is immediate reporting,” A/Professor Way said.

He said the hospital launched two separate investigations into the former staff member’s concerns as soon as they were raised, and took “appropriate” action.

“The hospital has a robust complaint and surgical audit system, though clearly more works needs to be done to encourage staff in some parts of the organisation to feel confident to raise complaints so issues can be investigated,” A/Professor Way said.

Concerns about sexual harassment of junior women doctors gained national attention late last week when vascular surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin said they were often better off complying with inappropriate requests from senior colleagues because to report such behaviour could harm their career prospects.

But AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler said it was “reckless and irresponsible” to encourage people to acquiesce in such a situation.

“The AMA rejects absolutely workplace behaviour which belittles, humiliates, or harasses for any reason, including for reasons of gender. Such behaviour is unacceptable in our workplaces, and in our society,” A/Professor Owler said. “Systemic harassment or abuse will only be defeated by taking it on.”

The AMA President also rejected claims of an ingrained culture of sexual harassment in the nation’s hospitals.

“This is not my experience, or the experience of my colleagues who work in both the public and private hospital systems across the country,” he said. “There may be a small number of cases, but there are processes in place to identify and punish any offenders.”

Royal Australasian College of Surgeons President Professor Michael Grigg said it was “quite appalling” to suggest it was preferable for women surgical trainees to “silently endure” sexual harassment.

Professor Grigg said the College rejected such advice emphatically, and described as “deeply insulting” the inference that this is what successful female surgeons and trainees had done in the past.

He said not reporting such behaviour only served to perpetuate it.

But neurosurgeon Dr Caroline Tan, who won a sexual harassment case against a colleague in 2008, told The Age Dr McMullin had highlighted a real dilemma faced by female practitioners who were the subject of inappropriate behaviour about whether to repport it or not.

Dr Tan said the College needed to establish an independent body to hear allegations of misconduct and make sure complainants were respected and protected.

Professor Grigg assured that “complaints are taken seriously and investigated and acted upon at the highest level. To contend that reporting will impact one’s career advancement is simply wrong and ill-informed”.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 12 Mar 2015