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Sexual misconduct between healthcare practitioners and the impact on patient safety



Sexual misconduct in the healthcare workplace  

Stories of professional sexual misconduct hit the headlines every week – and the #metoo movement continues to gain momentum. When #metoo becomes an issue in the workplace of healthcare professionals, it may become a cause for concern for ‘fitness to practise’ panels – because it can impact public safety. In some cases, it then falls to us to exercise our powers to provide public protection. But what exactly is ‘fitness to practise’ and how does it work?  In a nutshell, ‘fitness to practise’ (more commonly known as FtP) is the process used by statutory professional regulators to manage complaints made about healthcare professionals.

One of our recent blogs introduces the concept of FtP and explains in detail how the process works.

What if a healthcare practitioner isn’t fit to practise?

This recent news article about a senior nurse who sexually assaulted a junior colleague resulted in him being struck off the nursing register, effectively banning him from ever practising as a nurse again. But what if his regulator had decided not to strike him off? That’s where we’d step in. 

We have legal powers enabling us to refer serious cases to the High Court, as part of our role to protect the public. What’s more, we check every single decision made by the fitness to practise panels of all nine healthcare regulators. Any decision which doesn’t protect the public is thoroughly reviewed and may be referred to court. Some of these will include claims of sexual misconduct.

New research uncovers attitudes towards sexual misconduct between colleagues

The sexual misconduct cases we see usually take place between a professional and their patient. But in some cases, like the story above, it involves two professionals, working as colleagues. We’d noticed that some of these cases weren’t always treated as seriously as when a patient was involved which didn’t make sense to us because it can still impact patient safety.

When we’d referred two such cases to the courts, we’d lost on appeal. To sense-check our thinking, we commissioned research to discover what professionals and the public think. 

Download our sexual misconduct research

What did the research uncover?

Research participants shared their views on why sexual misconduct between colleagues negatively impacts patient safety:

  • it may point to deep-seated attitudinal problems and motivations – including a lack of empathy (which many of the interviewees thought was an essential quality in a health professional) which may pose a risk to patients
  • there may be wider impacts of boundary-crossing behaviour, including the effect it has on the colleague who is subject to it (stress, distraction, anxiety)
  • it may create a culture where boundary-crossing behaviour becomes acceptable (potentially creating toxic working environments where bullying is normalised)
  • it may affect public confidence and trust in healthcare professionals where such behaviour is witnessed or heard about. 

So, where would you draw the line? This short video explores the scenarios used in our research.

What do you think?

This is what participants in our research had to say:

To be honest, I don’t care whether there’s a culture of banter in the ward, if someone is uncomfortable with it, then it’s not appropriate, it’s not acceptable. 

If you’re making rude sexual comments on social media, in some ways, actually, you’re not just making it to one person, you’re making it to the whole world, which it’s not just breaking boundaries, it’s literally destroying them and jumping on them.

Find out more about our work on sexual behaviour in the workplace


document Read our research

Have you been the victim of unwanted behaviour from a colleague?  

If you’ve had a negative experience, we always recommend that you report incidents to your employer or – in the case of a criminal act – the police.  You can also report this behaviour to your professional regulator. If your occupation is not regulated by law but you’re on an Accredited Register, you can access their complaints service.  

Want to find out more? 

The research document in full makes for an interesting read. We've also produced this infographic which highlights several key findings. Or, if you're interested in learning more about the appeals process, you can take a look at the cases we’ve considered and those we’ve appealed.