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BreakingMay 23, 2023

NHS trusts fail to protect staff and patients from epidemic of sexual abuse, investigation reveals

NHS trusts in England recorded more than 35,000 cases of rape, sexual assault, harassment, stalking, and abusive remarks in the years from 2017- 2022. The findings were released this morning (23 May) following an investigation conducted by The BMJ and The Guardian. The results show that NHS trusts are failing to protect staff and patients, prompting calls for an independent inquiry.

The data, based on responses to Freedom of Information requests from 212 NHS trusts and 37 police forces, show that a total of 35,606 sexual safety incidents were recorded on NHS premises over this five-year period.

At least 20 per cent of incidents involved rape, sexual assault, or kissing or touching that a person did not consent to, although not all trusts provided a breakdown of the type of incidents recorded. The other cases included sexual harassment, stalking, and abusive or degrading remarks. 


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NHS trusts show a 'reluctance' to suspend perpetrators due to overall staff shortages'

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Paucity of policies

The data also show that patients are the main perpetrators of abuse in hospitals. Most incidents (58 per cent) involved patients abusing staff, with patients abusing other patients the next most common type of incident (20 per cent).  Police recorded nearly 12,000 alleged sexual crimes on NHS premises in the same time period. These include 180 cases of rape of children under 16, with four children under 16 being gang raped.

Fewer than one trust in 10 has a dedicated policy to deal with sexual assault and harassment, and no longer have to report abuse of staff to a central database. 

Latifa Patel, BMA workforce and equalities lead, said she assumed that trusts without dedicated sexual safety policies are ‘sitting on huge numbers of unreported incidents’ – which has a ‘truly disturbing implication’. The data show that 193 of the 212 trusts reported 10 or fewer staff-on-staff incidents between 2017 and 2022, but doctors described this as ‘implausible’ given the number of those employed and said that staff are reluctant to report sexual assault.

I know hundreds of female doctors who’ve been assaulted, thousands who’ve been harassed, and a decent number who’ve been raped within the NHS [Simon Fleming, orthopaedic registrar]

A 'painful truth'

Simon Fleming, an orthopaedic registrar and author of Sexual Assault in Surgery: A painful truth, said: ‘I know hundreds of female doctors who’ve been assaulted, thousands who’ve been harassed, and a decent number who’ve been raped within the NHS.’

And although more than 4,000 NHS staff were accused of rape, sexual assault, harassment, stalking, or abusive remarks towards other staff or patients in 2017-22, the investigation found that only 576 have faced disciplinary action.

When complaints are made against colleagues, women claim that NHS trusts show a ‘reluctance to suspend perpetrators due to overall staff shortages’, said Deeba Syed, senior legal officer for Rights of Women, a helpline that provides support for women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed at work. 

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Liberal Democrats, the Hospital Doctors Union, the GMB union, the Society of Radiologists and the British Dietetic Association have all called for an independent inquiry into the epidemic of sexual assault in the NHS in light of the findings.

What should trusts do?

Trusts need to be guided by NHS-wide policies on how to deal with allegations, including when to suspend staff and when to report individuals to the police, and should act swiftly to deal with complaints, say Tamzin Cuming and Carrie Newlands, from the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery.

Health secretary Steve Barclay said that the government has doubled the maximum sentence for those who are convicted of assaulting health workers and is working closely with NHS England to prevent and reduce violence against staff.

Three 'sanctioning mechanisms'

In a linked opinion article, Simon Fleming said that everyone has a responsibility to hold sexual predators in the NHS accountable or risk becoming complicit bystanders. ‘Criminal behaviour should be dealt with seriously, regardless of who has committed the crime. He added: ‘Failure to challenge, individually or organisationally, these attitudes is akin to accepting them as “just how things are”.’

In another opinion article, Rosalind Searle, from the Adam Smith Business School at the University of Glasgow, said failures to record, investigate, and act on cases of sexual harassment and abuse in healthcare have enabled perpetrators. She outlines three sanctioning mechanisms – self, social, and legal sanctions – that are needed to reduce these violations in workplaces and society.

To join a BMJ webinar on this topic on 8 June, click 

To read the main article - titled Medical colleges and unions call for inquiry over ‘shocking’ levels of sexual assault in the NHS doi:10.1136/bmj.p1105 – visit: https://www.bmj.com/content/381/bmj.p1105

To read the two opinion articles, visit: https://www.bmj.com/content/381/bmj.p1117 and https://www.bmj.com/content/381/bmj.p1094

Author: Ian A McMillan
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