More than half of medical residents experience sexual harassment

More than half of first year medical residents experience sexual harassment -- and up to a quarter of those who do are women, a team of researchers has found.   

However, the prevalence of sexual harassment does vary by institution, noted a team led by Elizabeth Viglianti, MD, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The group's findings were published December 26 in JAMA Network Open.

"Among a U.S. national cohort of interns, over half experienced sexual harassment," Viglianti and colleagues wrote. "Although harassment was prevalent across programs, institutional and specialty training variations in interns' sexual harassment experiences exist, thereby providing additional evidence that residency programs and institutions play an important role in combating this widespread problem."

Previous research on sexual harassment in medicine has been focused on a single center or single specialty – which limits understanding of variation across institutions and specialties, the team explained. So the group conducted a study that included data from June 2016 to June 2017 from the Intern Health Study, an investigation of 2027 postgraduate year 1 residents (interns) from 28 institutions; this work is a collaboration between the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Participants completed a shortened Sexual Experiences Questionnaire (SEQ-S) at the end of their intern year. "Sexual harassment" was defined as consisting of at least one characteristic of the SEQ-S across three categories: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion. (Institutions with fewer than 50 respondents and respondents who identified as nonbinary were excluded from the primary analysis due to small sample size, the authors noted.)

Of the 2,027 study participants, 47.5% were men and 52.5% were women (median age, 27). Most were White (61.5%), Asian (19.9%) or multiracial (8.8%). Of this cohort, 1,311 (64.7%) reported experiencing sexual harassment; of these, 77.2% were women and 50.9% were men.

The team adjusted for respondent characteristics such as age, self-reported race and ethnicity, and sex, and found significant variation among the 28 institutions regarding the prevalence of sexual harassment, with an absolute difference of 12.2% between those with lowest prevalence and those with highest prevalence. They also found that the median odds ratio was 1.2 (with 1 as reference) -- "meaning for two interns with the same characteristics, the intern at the institution with a higher prevalence of sexual harassment would have 20% greater odds of experiencing sexual harassment," the group reported.

Sexual harassment among medical residents must be addressed, according to Viglianti and colleagues.

"Further work is necessary to understand cultural or policy differences that influence the rates of sexual harassment within institutions and specialties," they concluded. "This data could inform interventions and facilitate the sharing of best practices, ultimately reducing the unacceptably high frequency of sexual harassment experienced by resident physicians."


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