Kay Petersen, a Boston physician, recalls when she first encountered undeniable sexual harassment from a patient - a man she had been treating without incident for several years.
"I was saying goodbye at the end of an office visit. He grabbed my hand, then grabbed me around the waist and kissed me on the lips," Petersen said. "It was a terribly painful moment."
Such overt sexual aggression by patients is apparently relatively unusual. But a study published last week and anecdotal evidence from women doctors suggest that most women physicians face sexual harassment by their men patients.
"Our results suggest that sexual harassment of female physicians is widespread and troublesome," concluded Dr. Susan P. Phillips of Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and Margaret S. Schneider of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Their study appears in last week's New England Journal of Medicine.
More than three-quarters of 417 women family practitioners in the Ontario study reported experience with sexual harassment by men patients. The offensive behavior spanned a wide range: sexual remarks and gestures, lewd genital exposure, pressure for dates and unwelcome gifts, brushing or fondling the doctor's body and rape or attempted rape.
The researchers asked study subjects whether they had had first-hand experience with these behaviors by patients. The study drew on definitions of sexual harassment used by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other studies.
Women physicians told researchers they experienced such patient behavior from once a year to once a month or more, except for grossly inappropriate behavior, which occurred from less than once a year to three times a year. …