Sexual harassment in the NHS has recently made headlines due to a report published in the British Journal of Surgery that highlighted the prevalence of it, followed by a reaction letter from a retired anaesthetist who told young surgeons to “toughen up”.
This has caused public outrage among digital platforms, such as X (formerly Twitter), in which many have expressed their disappointment in the retired doctor’s attitudes and comments on the matter.
Many believe that the attitude of disregarding sexual harassment and treating it as something that young doctors should just bear is the reason why the issue persists.
Sexual Harassment in NHS Surgeons
The report published in the British Journal of Surgery was based on a survey conducted by researchers from the University of Surrey and Exeter University. They analysed the results from an anonymous online survey involving 1434 surgeons, of which 51.5% were women.
The main finding was that both female and male surgeons have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
The study highlights alarming rates of sexual misconduct in the UK surgical workforce, with 89.5% of women witnessing sexual harassment and 63.3% experiencing it. In contrast, 17.1% of men witnessed and 6.9% were targeted for sexual assault. This gender disparity is concerning and raises questions about accountability, as only 14.5% considered the General Medical Council adequate in addressing these issues.
The study also underscores the harmful impact of “banter cultures” and the normalisation of misconduct, leading to burnout and psychological distress. The persistently low representation of women in surgery, despite their presence in medical schools, highlights ongoing risks.
Dysfunctional team dynamics due to misconduct threaten patient safety and public trust in the surgical profession. Urgent cultural change, accountability, and support are needed to create a safe and inclusive surgical environment.
Retired Doctor’s Letter
What followed the publishing of the report was a response letter by Dr Peter Hilton, a retired anaesthetist, written to The Times. Dr Hilton was previously employed at Morriston Hospital in Swansea.
“I’ve sent the letter to colleagues I worked with and they agree wholeheartedly.
“Medicine is not alone in having a culture of bullying, sexual abuse verbal or otherwise, and banter that’s in bad taste.
“You will meet people who are bullies, you will meet people who are misogynistic and do inappropriate things, but deal with it,” said Dr Hilton.
Reactions on Social Media
Shortly after it became public, many NHS staff took to X to respond.
Overall, the majority of netizens were upset by the comments made by Dr Hilton. Many have expressed disappointment with what can be seen as condescending and invalidation of sexual harassment and abuse experiences that have been endured by young surgeons. Further, Dr. Hilton’s letter highlighted female surgeons, and some have viewed the comments as misogynistic and downplaying the contributions and achievements of young female surgeons.