Patients’ trauma: Medical fraternity yet to wake up to sexual harassment?

While the #MeToo movement in India appears to have subsided at the moment, recent revelations of two women patients have raised uncomfortable questions.

Published: 07th July 2019 06:25 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th July 2019 08:36 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

CHENNAI: While the #MeToo movement in India appears to have subsided at the moment, recent revelations of two women patients have raised uncomfortable questions. The women had displayed tremendous courage in speaking out against the sexual assault they faced while undergoing treatment in the hospitals.

The cases were strikingly repugnant as the alleged perpetrators were persons in positions of trust. While virtually all patients are in vulnerable positions, these women were especially so as they were alone or immobilised at the times of the alleged assaults.

These incidents and the experiences that health professionals shared with Express, revealed that there is not even a nascent recognition or discussion in the medical fraternity on the possibilities of patients facing sexual harassment or assault at the hands of hospital staff, including doctors. Worse, there is very little awareness in the fraternity on the institutional mechanisms to help patients recognise they are being violated, how they should raise a complaint and the complaints should be handled.

This is especially shocking given the power dynamic between hospital staff and medical professionals and their patients. In the process of receiving care and treatment, patients give up their privacy and bodily autonomy to the medical team. The vulnerability of the patients offers much scope for abuse and exploitation. 

In the most recent incident of such a violation, reported last month, a lab technician was arrested for allegedly taking the hand of the woman, even as she was undergoing a surgical procedure in an operation theatre, and putting it into his pants. Shockingly, doctors and other staff in the operation theatre claimed they did not notice his actions. However, city police, after a detailed investigation, found prima facie cause to arrest the lab technician.

In the other incident, reported in September 2018, a young woman being treated in a high dependency ward said a male doctor attempted to molest her in guise of carrying out an unnecessary physical check up when she was alone at the ward at night. While in the September 2018 case, the hospital did not acknowledge the woman’s complaints, in the other case, the woman alleged that the hospital management was indifferent to her complaint until she took the matter to the police.

Turning blind eye?

While sexual harassment in the workplace has been recognised as the horrific crime it is, after decades of struggle, it appears that the medical fraternity has turned a blind eye to such abuses.

“When women patients come, it is a dictum that male doctors should have another woman attender in the room,” Dr C S Rex Sargunam, former director of Institute of Child Health and Hospital for Children, observed. But what about other situations? Health professionals Express spoke to said most such cases went unreported.

“It’s a thin line between consulting and misbehaving. Most of the patients, especially in rural areas, are unaware of this,” said a resident medical officer of a government hospital in the state. 

Indeed, how can a patient tell if the doctor is examining her rather than groping her? What about when the patient is unconscious? There are not many answers from the medical fraternity on this. E

veryone agrees that the responsibility lies with the hospital but almost none in the medical fraternity, including top health department officials, seem aware of the institutional mechanisms that must be put in place.

According to legal experts and activists, however, they need not look too far for guidance as the Prevention of Workplace Sexual Harassment Act, 2013 covers not just the staff, but even a visitor or anyone in a workplace. Hence, patients too would be covered under law. Section 2 of the Act, in fact, defines an “aggrieved person” as anyone who alleges sexual harassment in relation to a workplace.

ICCs vital

This means that the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), which every workplace, including hospitals, must have to deal with the sexual harassment complaints from the employees could also deal with complaints from the patients. S Vimala, a retired judge of Madras High Court, said, “Every hospital should have a set of rules on how the complaint should be filed and who it has to be addressed to. Moreover, this information should be published under the ‘Right to Information’ in every hospital.”

The importance of the internal committee is that the privacy of the complainant and the accused is ensured. Swarna Rajagopalan, founder and director for the Prajnya Trust, said the bill of rights posted by the hospitals should include details of the internal complaints committee. This was important to make patients aware of their options when faced with sexual harassment.

The Act and the guidelines issued by the Ministry if Women and Child Development detail that the soon after a complaint is made, a committee, with the presence of an external member, should probe the complaint by giving chances of fair hearing to both the parties and give its conclusions for action by the hospital management.

But a quick check with a few doctors suggested that many hospitals in the city, both government and private, did not have in place an ICC. It is said that even harassment faced by women staff in the hospitals was not taken seriously.

“When such is the case, it is very doubtful whether complaints from patients would be treated seriously,” said a Chennai-based doctor, seeking anonymity.

A case in point is an incident in a Primary Health Centre in Vellore district last year. The women staff in the government health centre were facing repeated sexual harassment at the hands of a senior doctor.

A government doctor privy to the issue said, “When complaints were made to superiors in Vellore district, no action was taken. Only after it reached the ears of the top health department officials in Chennai, was the senior doctor transferred out of the place.” 

Dr S Kanagasabapathi, State President, Indian Medical Association, said, “There is no Vishaka Committee (another term used to refer ICC) at any private hospitals, the government should frame the modalities and issue directions to the private hospitals to constitute one. On July 10, we have a meeting with the health secretary, we will discuss about this and request her to issue directions to form such committees.”  

Initiatives like this from the medical fraternity reaffirm its commitment to addressing sensitive issues. While it may be impossible to prevent every incident of human delinquency, it is gross negligence when people in positions of responsibility fail to foresee vulnerabilities.

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