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Research by UM shows that more than half of new doctors report sexual harassment

Vaseline 2 months ago

Researchers from the University of Michigan published a study in March on reporting rates of sexual harassment among medical trainees in the US. The survey indicated a decrease in the number of sexual harassment incidents and an increase in self-recognition of sexual harassment between 2017 and 2023. Despite this, the incidence has decreased, but 54.6% of the 4,178 interns surveyed reported experiencing sexual harassment in 2023. The report also indicated that among female trainees, the number who reported experiencing sexual coercion increased from 2.3% to 5.5%.

The study used data from the Internal Health Study, an 18-year study that collects information on stress and mental health during a medical residency, the first year of clinical training after medical school.

Elena Frank, director of the Intern Health Study and lead author of the sexual harassment study, said the Intern Health Study collects data through a wearable fitness tracker and an app that participants use to complete quarterly surveys.

“We look at different demographic factors… and we collect our data through a mobile app,” says Frank. “We can actually get data (from the fitness tracker), so we have sleep and steps to get a daily mood score. So we can explore many different components and see some of the factors that contribute to the decline of mental health and other aspects of well-being during clinical training.

Frank said an increase in discussion about sexual harassment following the #MeToo movement, as well as access to data collected from the Internal Health Study, provided an opportunity to examine sexual harassment in the medical profession.

“A major factor emerging in medicine and STEM fields related to gender disparities is sexual harassment,” Frank said. “We saw it in 2017 when (#MeToo) went viral and there was a lot more discussion about sexual harassment in many areas. So it seemed like the right situation to be able to look at this in more depth, especially with the large-scale research that we had.”

The Internal Healthy Study began asking participants questions about sexual harassment in the workplace in 2016. Frank said she designed the questions to address both explicit and implicit forms of sexual harassment, because people can experience harassment but not recognize it as such.

“The scale we used assessed three different types: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion,” Frank said. “So most people are familiar with the more overt forms of sexual harassment, but with more subtle forms of sexual harassment, people may not necessarily realize that this is harassment. So they wouldn’t say they were harassed if they experienced it or witnessed it.”

Although there were more women than men enrolled in medical schools in the U.S. in 2023, Frank said there is still a need for broader recognition of the prevalence of sexual harassment in clinical training.

“There is a sense that we have achieved some kind of equality in medicine when it comes to gender, but there is still a long, long way to go,” Frank said. “This shows that we experience this level of harassment in training where the numbers are very high, and so many people don’t even realize that this is a major problem that needs to be addressed.”

Frank also authored a similar study published in December 2023 by Dr. Elizabeth Viglianti, assistant professor of internal medicine, which looked at the incidence of sexual harassment among medical trainees in various settings and fields of medicine. Viglianti told The Daily that despite an overall decrease in sexual harassment among medical trainees, Frank’s research showed an increase in more extreme forms of sexual harassment, which she found concerning.

“I think Dr. Frank’s research is really remarkable (because) we have made improvements in gender harassment, but the worst forms of sexual harassment are actually increasing, as are sexual assault and sexual coercion,” Viglianti said. “That’s a number you definitely don’t want to see increase. You just can’t even imagine that we’re in 2024 and that’s still a problem.”

Rackham student Katherine Ross, who is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology, said that despite policy changes to address sexual harassment in the university’s clinical training programs, she believes larger-scale changes are still necessary.

“We have responded (through) policies that have made reporting easier and people are recognized,” Ross said. “So we’re also seeing trends in increasing recognition, so that’s positive, but how can we prevent harassment and other forms of all forms of harassment in other ways, for example by addressing culture?”

Frank said that while policy changes are critical to minimizing sexual harassment, they are not effective in changing the workplace culture that enables harassment.

“Consistent, clear policies are incredibly important… but culture seems to be the biggest problem because you can put a million policies on it and it doesn’t necessarily change the work environment,” Frank said. “So especially in medicine, you’re seeing this continue again because some of these cultural norms are just not evolving fast enough to keep up with where we should be today.”

Daily staff reporter Eilene Koo can be reached at [email protected].