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Sexual misconduct by healthcare practitioners - key themes

View profile for Carl Johnson
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Sexual misconduct in health and social care is, thankfully, a rare occurrence. In a small minority of cases however, professionals can seriously breach physical or sexual boundaries with their patients or colleagues. Not only can such cases have a devastating effect upon victims, these cases also serve to significantly undermine the trust and confidence people have in healthcare professionals. 

In a recent research report, the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) shone a light on sexual misconduct in the context of professional discipline cases. with the PSA reviewed a total of 275 cases from the General Medical Council, Health and Care Professions Council and Nursing and Midwifery Council. Allegations of sexually motivated misconduct were found proven in 232 of those cases, the report unpicks and analyses the circumstances of incidents of sexual misconduct by health and social care professionals. The report also highlights the correlation between sexual misconduct and an imbalance of power – patient vs professional, senior vs junior – and how workplace incivility can lead to patient harm.

The report also outlines the gender breakdown of these offences with 88% committed by male perpetrators who often display a repeated pattern of offences targeting multiple individuals. Workplaces were found to be the most dominant location for these types of fitness to practice cases (54%) and the report found that patients (59%) were those most commonly targeted, though there were also a significant percentage of colleagues (32%) who were also affected.

The PSA found that in cases where sexual misconduct has occurred between healthcare practitioners, these cases may be treated less seriously by regulators’ fitness to practice panels than perhaps if they had been between practitioner and patient. The report also outlines an important difference between professions and the sanctions they received. Specifically, doctors were statistically more likely to receive a suspension compared to other groups. This was found to be an important issue as it can lead one group to perceive that these actions are less likely to be ‘punished’, and so creating ambiguity for perpetrators.

As part of its recommendations to tackle and reduce offending behaviour, the PSA suggest there should be “a greater attention towards awareness raising and training that extends beyond staff. It suggests that “hot spot” organisations can be identified by high levels of incivility as well as excessively long working hours and locations with high concentrations of vulnerable users (ie: mental health patients).  It argues that these measures, set alongside clear workplace policies prohibiting relationships with patients, should remove the ambiguity and inform perpetrators, their targets and other staff about what is, and is not acceptable behaviour. Finally, the PSA calls for changes to help create a clear framework across professions within which sanctions are applied, this, they argue would “ensure appropriateness and comparability of sanctions, especially in the case of events with multiple targets and incidents”.

It is this guidance on sanctions which may prove to be most pertinent from a defence perspective. The PSA’s report notes that doctors in particular are more likely to be suspended following a finding of sexually-motivated misconduct; whereas for other professions striking off was more likely. This could lead to an increase in orders of erasure by Medical Practitioners Tribunals who make such findings.

Stephensons has a team of specialist lawyers who advise on all aspects of professional regulation. This includes successfully defending professional clients facing a wide range of conduct issues, which includes allegations of sexually motivated misconduct. If you are facing proceedings before your regulator or professional body contact our specialist lawyers on 0161 696 6250.