Recent cultural movements focused on sexual harassment have touched oncology clinical practice, where harassment and its effects on physician well-being are becoming increasingly recognized.1-3 As such, the incidence and impact of workplace sexual harassment of oncologists warrants focussed investigation.1
In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Ishwaria M. Subbiah, MD, MS, of the department of palliative, rehabilitation, and integrative medicine at Istanbul University Oncology Institute in Istanbul, Turkey, and co-authors evaluated oncologists’ lived experiences and consequences of sexual harassment perpetrated by both peers and/or superiors, as well as patients and/or families.
“To our knowledge, this is the first study in oncology to use validated measures of sexual harassment to systematically characterize the incidence and nature of past-year sexual harassment experienced by a diverse sample of oncologists,” Dr Subbiah and her colleagues wrote.
The researchers conducted a prospective cross-sectional study that included 271 clinical oncologists in the United States. Study participants completed a survey that contained validated measures of sexual harassment (encompassing gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion) and four outcomes (mental health, job satisfaction, turnover intentions, and sense of workplace safety) over the previous year alone.
Following the survey, multivariable regression analysis was used to evaluate the impact of sexual harassment on the four outcomes.
Among the respondents (153 women and 118 men), 70% reported experiencing sexual harassment in the past year alone by peers or superiors (80% of women vs 56% of men; P <.0001); Specifically, 69% experienced gender harassment (79% of women vs 55% of men; P <.0001), 17% unwanted sexual attention (22% of women vs 9% of men, P =.005), and 3% sexual coercion (3% of women vs 2% of men; P = .42).
With respect to patients and/or families, sexual harassment was experienced by 53% of participants (67% of women vs 35% of men; P <.0001); Specifically, 52% experienced gender harassment (66% of women vs 34% of men, P <.0001), 6% unwanted sexual attention (5% of women vs 6% of men; P =.80), and 1% sexual coercion (1% of women vs 1% of men, P =.72).
After multivariable analysis, Dr. Subbiah and her colleagues found that past-year sexual harassment by peers and/or superiors was significantly associated with poorer mental health (P =.004), job satisfaction (P =.001), and sense of workplace safety (P <.001), as well as higher turnover intentions (P <.0001). In terms of patients or families, past-year sexual harassment was significantly associated with poorer mental health (P =.002), increased turnover intentions (P =.0004), and sense of workplace safety (P =.014).
“These findings demonstrate the impact of sexual harassment on men and women oncologists in multiple domains of workplace experience,” the researchers wrote. “This study provides critical data to inform the need for and design of effective protective and preventive workplace policies in oncology.” They continued, “Disappointingly, the present study provides compelling evidence that the rates of gender harassment in oncology are substantial, experienced by the majority of not only women but also men.”
“Harassment and discrimination cannot be allowed to persist, as they have real consequences for the vitality of the workforce that delivers essential care to patients with cancer,” commented study author Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, of the department of radiation oncology at the University of Michigan.
“Future research would also be valuable to integrate the understanding of how sexual harassment experiences may relate to the strikingly high levels of burnout documented in oncology,” the researchers concluded.
- Subbiah IM, Markham MJ, Graff SL, et al. Incidence, nature, and consequences of oncologists’ experiences with sexual harassment. J Clin Oncol. 2022;40(11):1186-1195. doi:10.1200/JCO.21.02574
- Jagsi R. Sexual harassment in medicine – #MeToo. N Engl J Med. 2018;378(3):209-211. doi:10.1056/NEJMp1715962
- Choo EK, Byington CL, Johnson NL, Jagsi R. From #MeToo to #TimesUp in health care: can a culture of accountability end inequity and harassment? Lancet. 2019;393(10171):499-502. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30251-X