Less than one in 10 NHS trusts has a dedicated policy to deal with allegations of sexual assault and harassment, an investigation has found.
More than 35,000 sexual safety incidents were reported to 212 NHS trusts in England between 2017 and 2022, according to data obtained via Freedom of Information requests from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the Guardian.
Staff were the victims in nearly two-thirds (62%) of the incidents that were reported, and most (58%) involved patients abusing staff.
At least 20% 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.
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Unions including the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association (HCSA), GMB union, the Society of Radiographers, and the British Dietetic Association have called for an independent inquiry into the handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints.
Some 22,143 NHS staff in England experienced sexual abuse, according to the data published by the BMJ. More than 20,000 staff were abused by patients and 902 staff were abused by their colleagues.
The investigation found that NHS trusts are no longer obliged to report abuse of staff to a central database.
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, told the BMJ that each trust has a different policy around whether they report cases before or after an investigation or disciplinary action.
Some 87 of the 207 trusts that responded said they did not have a sexual safety policy that sets out how to safeguard staff, patients, and visitors from harm and what processes to follow when cases are reported. The 20 trusts that did have dedicated policies reported more cases than those that didn’t and the trusts that did not report any sexual safety incidents tended not to have policies.
NHS trusts in England took disciplinary action against 577 staff who were accused of sexual harassment, assault, stalking or abusive remarks towards colleagues or patients.
Navina Evans, chief workforce officer at NHS England, said: “The health service must be a safe space for all patients and staff and must not tolerate any sexual misconduct, violence, harassment or abuse.
“NHS England has established a dedicated team to ensure people who experience violence and abuse are supported in the workplace, and there is greater provision of support for all victims and survivors.
“All NHS trusts and organisations have measures in place to ensure immediate action is taken in any cases reported to them and I strongly encourage anyone who has experienced any misconduct to come forward, report it and seek support.”
One former NHS physician associate quit her job in 2020 over her trust’s poor handling of her complaint about sexual assault by a junior doctor, which she claimed left her with PTSD and panic attacks.
“I’d worked for the NHS all my life and had a career that I loved, but I just felt that I had no other option than to leave,” she told the BMJ. “The worst thing was how the trust handled my complaint; that had a massive impact on my mental health.”
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