Addressing sexual misconduct in healthcare

Published: 13/09/2023

The Royal College of Anaesthetists (RCoA) welcomes the Breaking the Silence report into sexual misconduct in healthcare. The report presents analysis of an anonymous online survey conducted by the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery (WPSMS) in partnership with the University of Exeter and University of Surrey. It reveals the extent of sexual misconduct within the surgical workforce in the last five years.

The widespread nature of sexual misconduct within the surgical team, which includes sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape, is deeply shocking and concerning. Our heart goes out to the people affected and we will play our part in working to eradicate this behaviour in healthcare.

The College supported the research and invited our members to participate. Responses were received from 1,434 participants, of whom 10.5% were anaesthetists. The research found that:

  • Almost two-thirds of women (63.3%) had been the target of sexual harassment from colleagues, along with almost a quarter of men (23.7%).
  • The majority of participants (89.5% of women, 81% of men) said they have witnessed some form of sexual misconduct by colleagues.
  • Only 16% of those impacted by sexual misconduct made a formal report.

Anaesthetists and surgeons, along with other healthcare professionals work closely together in the operating theatre, taking on team leadership roles and supporting each other in what can be a high pressure and stressful environment. Everyone in the team has a duty to speak up if they witness sexual harassment but as team leaders we have a particular responsibility not only to call out misconduct, but to model and reinforce good practice.

Our Council Member Dr Sarah Thornton represents the RCoA on the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery and participated in a roundtable event earlier this year to identify actions to bring about change, which inform the recommendations in the report. To use Dr Thornton’s words, when it comes to calling out, addressing and preventing sexual misconduct, “we need to change the culture from ‘everybody knows but nobody does’ to ‘everybody knows and everybody does’”. 

The College is committed to working with the report authors, the Royal Colleges of Surgeons and the wider NHS to implement the recommendations and promote the resources available . The report contains testimonies that are extremely distressing and anyone who has been affected can call the RCS England 24/7 confidential support and advice line on 0800 028 0199 to speak with a trained counsellor. Our wellbeing hub also signposts to other sources of support.

In addition to our work with WPSMS we have signed up to NHS England’s first sexual safety in healthcare charter, which reinforces our commitment to a zero tolerance approach to any unwanted, inappropriate and/or harmful sexual behaviours in the workplace and to ten core principles and actions to help achieve this. We have also joined the British Medical Association’s pledge to end sexism in medicine, committing to working with them and others to address the cultural and structural factors that case sexism in order to improve working conditions for medical students and doctors.

We all deserve to work in a safe environment where we will be treated with dignity and respect. We must do everything we can to defend that right.

Dr Fiona Donald
President, Royal College of Anaesthetists


Support from PatientsVoices@RCoA

Patients want to know that they are cared for by doctors who are valued and respected in the workplace. Patients also expect to be treated with respect and dignity themselves when in a vulnerable position. As the ‘Breaking the silence’ report highlights, teams plagued by bullying and harassment are bad for patients and a risk to patient safety.

PatientsVoices@RCoA fully supports the recommendations in the report and does not condone any form of sexual misconduct in healthcare settings, whether perpetrated towards medical professionals or patients.

Jenny Westaway
Chair of PatientsVoices@RCoA