Women in Medicine: Harassment is not the price of admission

As women, we are warned that life in the medical field will be more difficult than life for our male colleagues. This can manifest as anything from being repeatedly mistaken for the nurse to wage inequality. However the difference that may wear the most is the constant sexual harassment. As a medical student, I endured the occasional inappropriate comment from a patient—“I don’t need a cane to help me get around at home, I’m taking this young lady home with me tonight (insert gross wink).” Or perhaps the patient who insists that he demonstrate on you where exactly his low back—did he mean butt?—hurts.

In my personal experience, sexual harassment in the workplace generally stems from patients, not colleagues, although this is certainly not the case for all women. Perhaps, though, that is why I feel like I have experienced an uptick in sexual harassment lately. As a second year resident, we spend much more time in the emergency department than interns. This coupled with a recent surge in patient visits means that my number of patient interactions has increased significantly.

During my last month in the Department the harassing comments seemed not only more frequent, but also more grotesque. I had two patients threaten to rape me, in particularly illustrative terms. This sort of behavior outside of the work place would never be tolerated. But what happens we have an obligation to medically evaluate and treat the patient? Complicating these situations was the fact that one patient was acutely psychotic and the other high on cocaine. It is hard to hold individuals accountable when they are not of sound mind. But that doesn’t make the comments any less threatening.

I once recounted my encounter with the man and his cane to an attending who promptly told me “You know, you’re patient didn’t come to the doctor’s office for an Emily Post lecture.” To which I replied, “Well I didn’t come to work to be objectified.” Just the other day, after I turned down a patient’s request for a hug, an attending “joked” that I would have to become more friendly if I wanted to win patient satisfaction awards. It has never been, and is not presently, acceptable to expect women to endure some amount of harassment as a consequence of their presence in the profession.

I am not sure what the solution to this problem is. There was an excellent article in a recent NEJM about the subject discussing both the scope of the issue and possible solutions. Unfortunately, the solutions were aimed at systemic reform, and don’t help with the day-to-day burn out caused by these encounters. Until I have found the answer to this issue, I will continue to rely on the women in my life to support me. This includes my sister my who sends me flowers when I am feeling particularly downtrodden and my female colleagues who remind me that I am not alone in these experiences or this fight. For more instant relief of my anger and frustration, I have started journaling the comments verbatim. Maybe one day I will share them with others so they can see what we as women in the Emergency Department endure.

In the mean time, Happy Women in Medicine Month to all of the female docs out there. Your strength and perseverance in this fight does not go unnoticed, and we are doing better every day for it.

-Kimberly Chernoby, MD/JD

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