Reporting Sexual Harassment by a Surgeon

During my Surgery rotation, I shadowed a surgeon who was particularly colorful with his language. He was very talkative and obnoxious, peppering his language with expletives, making some rude comments about Mormons, and at one point insulting an Asian American woman who was one of the surgical assistants, suggesting that she would be good in bed because she was Asian.  Now, it’s not unusual to work with surgeons like this – it’s almost normative.  I remember one surgeon I worked with in 3rd year of medical school who was wondering aloud what kind of sexual experience his parents had when they conceived him.  I remember an Indian surgeon who liked to play Bollywood music full blast while he did his work.  But I thought the remarks toward the Asian American woman crossed the line, so I decided to report it to the Hospital System.  I even spoke with the Asian American woman who was the target of the abuse, and she said that was normal, and she brushed it off.  Her passivity and nonchalance about the incident was infuriating, and not surprisingly, I got this generic response from the Hospital System:

“Dear Bob,

This letter is sent in response to your concerns reported to AAA Family Medicine Program and BBB Health System in January 20XX.

Your concerns alleged inappropriate comments made by a surgeon towards a XXX Hospital surgical assistant who was Asian American. You stated that two or more surgeons and multiple staff are implicated in making sexist and racist comments against women and Asian Americans.  You also alleged such remarks were a systemic issue suggesting an atmosphere of discrimination against Asians that is pervasive in XXX Hospital’s surgical services.

BBB Health System takes these matters seriously. Corporate Integrity investigated the reported concerns. Based on our investigation findings, we are unable to substantiate the provider made the alleged comments. We are also unable to substantiate the provider made the alleged comments. We are also unable to substantiate there are providers or staff making sexist and/or racist comments or that there are systemic issues creating an atmosphere of discrimination against Asians or any other groups or individuals in XXX Hospital’s surgical services area.

Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention and providing us an opportunity to address your concerns. Feel free to contact me at XXX-XXX-XXXX if you have any questions or concerns.

 

Respectfully,

BBB Health System.

 

Director, Corporate Integrity

Vice President of Medical Affairs

Chief Medical Officer”

 

Here is my theory: there is a very hierarchical power structure that protects surgeons.  Surgeons with powerful personalities and charisma have lots of people who work under them: surgical assistants, nurses, technicians, all who depend on the surgeon for their employment.  Anyone who rocks the boat risks losing their job without much fanfare.  That is because there is a code of silence against anyone who speaks up.  In a sense, it’s like the mafia.  The surgical assistants, nurses, and technicians all have a vested interest in keeping the surgeon out of trouble, so it is in their best interest to deny that anything happened, even if the surgeon is sexist, racist, or discriminatory. Don’t hear, don’t see, don’t speak.  If I had only recorded the whole scene, maybe I had a better case, but even then I’m not sure if it had made a difference.  If even the Asian American woman couldn’t see the point or was too afraid to speak up for herself, I’m not sure if anything could have made a difference.