GMC stamps down on sexual harassment

New professional standards for all doctors are demanding ‘zero tolerance’ towards sexual harassment.

They are contained in a major update of the GMC’s Good medical practice, published today.

Zero tolerance of sexual harassment includes:

  • Clear definitions of what constitutes it;
  • An expectation that doctors who see such behaviour will act.

An addition, in the first major update to the guidance in a decade, explicitly covers sexual harassment of colleagues. 

Guidance says doctors ‘must not act in a sexual way towards colleagues with the effect or purpose of causing offence, embarrassment, humiliation or distress’. 

The standards make clear this includes:

  • Verbal or written comments; 
  • Displaying or sharing images;
  • Physical contact.

This adds to existing guidance that doctors must not act in a sexual way towards patients or use their professional position to ‘pursue a sexual or improper emotional relationship’.

Dr Udvitha Nandasoma

Substantially revised

Udvitha Nandasoma, head of advisory services at the Medical Defence Union (MDU), told Independent Practitioner Today: ‘This is a substantially revised piece of guidance from the GMC.

‘It applies to every doctor registered in the UK, including those in the private practice. This really is the core piece of guidance for the profession.’

The regulator also sets out for the first time what doctors should do if they witness bullying or harassment.

Prof Dame Carrie MacEwen

GMC chairwoman Prof Dame Carrie MacEwen, said: ‘Sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination are entirely unacceptable. Where workplace cultures of this kind of behaviour go unchecked, they are detrimental to wellbeing, performance and patient safety. 

‘Doctors are increasingly, and bravely, speaking out about it, and as a regulator, it is important we leave no doubt that such behaviour has no place in our health services.

‘Those who experience harassment or discrimination must feel supported to speak out, by employers, peers, managers and leaders. We heard from thousands of doctors, patients and members of the public during this consultation. 

‘We hope that by addressing this issue so clearly in the standards, this will spark discussion on making meaningful cultural change throughout medicine.’

 

The updated Good Medical Practice includes an entire section devoted to ‘contributing to a positive working and training environment’.

It says doctors must behave in ways that create ‘a culture that is respectful, fair, supportive and compassionate’, and should be aware of how their behaviour may influence others.

Unacceptable behaviour

Doctors who witness unacceptable behaviour, including any form of bullying, discrimination or harassment, should do something about it. The guidance suggests that, depending on circumstances, this could include:

  • Offering victim support and letting them know the behaviour witnessed is  unacceptable.
  • Challenging the behaviour by speaking to the person responsible, either at the time, if safe to do so, or at an appropriate time and place.
  • Reporting the behaviour in line with workplace policies, ensuring the person targeted is aware of and supports that intention.

It also makes clear the supportive role those in positions of formal leadership and management must play in making sure behaviours are addressed, dealt with promptly and escalated if necessary.

Dame Carrie,  a consultant ophthalmologist, said: ‘Good Medical Practice must be a catalyst for creating supportive workplaces that will benefit patients as well as doctors. It sets the standards and professional behaviours that will help all doctors to provide the best possible care for their patients.’

Doctors are being given until 30 January 2024 to familiarise themselves with the document’s 101 paragraphs. It then comes into effect and will apply to all doctors on the UK medical register.

Today’s publication follows last year’s public consultation, the largest ever conducted by the GMC, on a draft version. 

Good Medical Practice is available to read on the GMC’s website.