Call for inquiry after survey finds third of female surgeons sexually assaulted in NHS

An independent inquiry should be held to examine reports of sexual misconduct in the NHS, the Lib Dems have said, following a survey which found almost one in three female surgeons have been sexually assaulted in the last five years.

The survey by the British Journal of Surgery also found 29% of women who responded had experienced unwanted physical advances at work, and 11 instances of rape were reported by surgeons who took part in the study.

Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper told the PA news agency that the results are the latest in a series of revelations of sexual misconduct in the NHS in recent years, and she is calling for a public inquiry.

Ms Cooper told PA: “We have had a number of revelations, there has been a sort of drip-drip effect over several months and years now about allegations of sexual misconduct that are very widespread on NHS premises.

“There have been lots of examples of where this happens from one colleague to another colleague between NHS staff, but also examples where it’s been perpetrated by a member of staff against patients.

“This is something I have been raising in Parliament for (almost) three years now, and we continue to have reports of this kind.

“The one that we had today really is very, very shocking.”

She added: “Having had this issue raised time and time again in Parliament, it really is time now for the Government to launch an independent inquiry.”

She highlighted figures published in May which showed more than 35,000 incidents of sexual misconduct or sexual violence were recorded in the NHS in England between 2017 and 2022.

Ms Cooper said: “The Government should have acted on this absolutely years ago. But now with this continual feed of new revelations about the scale of this problem, it really is time that the Government took some action. They simply can’t wait any longer.

“Clearly there is a culture of silence within the NHS on this issue and I think we owe it to patients and to NHS staff that we shine the light on this.”

She told the Commons the reports “are just as serious as some of the revelations about sexual misconduct within the Met Police” that led to a review into standards in the police.

Ms Cooper also called for a date to be set for the General Medical Council to scrap its five-year rule against pursuing allegations which are more than five years old unless it is in the public interest to investigate, and for a tailored NHS complaints process for complaints of sexual nature as well as a specific NHS complaints code to allow for greater transparency on the scale of the issue.

The report from the British Journal of Surgery concluded: “Sexual misconduct occurs frequently and appears to go unchecked in the surgical environment owing to a combination of a deeply hierarchical structure and a gender and power imbalance.

“The result is an unsafe working environment and an unsafe space for patients.”

Compiled by the University of Exeter from 1,436 responses to an anonymous online survey, the research was commissioned by The Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery – a group of NHS surgeons, clinicians and researchers who say they are “working to raise awareness of sexual misconduct in surgery, to bring about cultural and organisational change”.

Consultant surgeon Tamzin Cuming, who chairs the Women in Surgery forum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said the report presents “some of the most appalling facts ever to come out” about the field and “represents a MeToo moment for surgery”.

Dr Binta Sultan, who chairs NHS England’s national clinical network of sexual assault and abuse services, said the report presents “clear evidence” that action is needed to make hospitals a safer environment.

She told the BBC: “We are already taking significant steps to do this, including through commitments to provide more support and clear reporting mechanisms to those who have suffered harassment or inappropriate behaviour.”

Tim Mitchell, president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said such behaviour has “no place… anywhere in the NHS”.

Describing it as “abhorrent”, he said: “We will not tolerate such behaviour in our ranks.”

It comes as a separate study examined sexual misconduct training among UK medical students.

The research saw academics at the University of Cambridge send Freedom of Information requests to the UK’s 34 medical schools.

Their report, published in the journal JRSM Open, found that only 53% offered “some or good sexual harassment training”.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The Health and Social Care Secretary (Steve Barclay) is clear that sexual violence or misconduct of any kind is unacceptable and has no place in the NHS.

“He is working closely with NHS leaders to root out this unacceptable behaviour and ensure services are always safe for staff and patients.

“In partnership with the Royal Colleges, staff, regulators and trade unions, the NHS recently launched the healthcare system’s first organisational sexual safety charter. Signatories commit to taking and enforcing a zero-tolerance approach to any unwanted, inappropriate and/or harmful sexual behaviours within the workplace.”

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