Regulatory rule changes to counter doctor sexual harassment – but is it enough?

Regulatory rule changes to counter doctor sexual harassment – but is it enough?

An update to the General Medical Council’s (GMC) guidelines (aka the “doctors’ bible”) has been proposed to place more emphasis on professional behaviours, such as challenging conduct that could be considered doctor sexual harassment, discrimination, or bullying.

The change follows a series of public embarrassments for NHS surgeons (which we wrote about in February).

More recently, the Daily Mail reported an NHS consultant gynaecologist brought an employment tribunal claim for unfair dismissal and race discrimination after he was sacked for forcing a junior doctor to strip naked for answering a question incorrectly. Edwin Chandraharan repeatedly sexually harassed junior doctors while away at conferences, attempting to force them to share a room with him and offering a “special massage”. Chandraharan argued that other senior doctors coerced the junior doctors to make up the allegations because they were racist.

His case was thrown out, but it is indicative of a toxic workplace culture that such egregious behaviour was permitted to go on for so long.

The GMC has suggested updating their guidelines is part of a re-focus on staff retention and improving mental wellbeing. Following the pandemic, more and more doctors are reporting burnout – citing factors like not being valued and supported at work as more important over other drivers like pay and pensions. The rule change is an effort to improve workplace culture by creating an environment where doctors feel empowered to speak up against bullying and sexual harassment in hospitals. This has implications for patient outcomes as well. I for one shudder to think of going under the knife of a junior doctor distracted by trying to avoid a consultant’s grabby hands.

The Solicitors Regulations Authority (SRA) has also now proposed a similar rule change, to create an obligation on individuals to treat colleagues “fairly and with respect” and not to “bully or harass them or discriminate unfairly against them”. Individuals and law firms would also be required to challenge behaviour that falls short of this standard.

Like the GMC, the SRA is attempting to address famously demanding workplace conditions. A 2020/21 consultation survey found more than 20% of lawyers had been subject to bullying, harassment or discrimination, and 7 in 10 had experienced mental health issues in the last 12 months.

Overhauling an entrenched workplace culture is a big ask from a few new words in guidance rules. Both doctors and lawyers are infamous for working in fast-paced, high-pressure environments, which seem to breed difficult personalities and reward cruelty. Creating a more inclusive environment cannot happen overnight, and doctor sexual harassment, bullying, and discrimination are already behaviours that can lead to disciplinary action. While the words are nice, what I would like to see are concrete steps towards actually enforcing them.

This blog was written by Kendal Youngblood, Solicitor at didlaw.