Royal Australasian College of Surgeons appoints experts to review bullying, harassment in Australian hospitals

The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons has appointed a group of high-profile health, police and discrimination experts to examine its culture and concerns that bullying and harassment are rife within its ranks and inside Australian hospitals.  

Just hours after neurosurgeon Caroline Tan described the college as an “Anglo-Saxon old boys’ club” and demanded an inquiry into the treatment of whistleblowers, college President Michael Grigg announced a new independent advisory group would investigate her concerns and those raised by others this week.

Professor Grigg said the group, chaired by former Victorian Health Minister Rob Knowles AO, would be asked to assess the college’s processes, its gender imbalance and what could be done to eliminate harassment and bullying in health care. The college’s previous management of complaints, including its involvement in court cases and tribunals, could also be reviewed.

“All of the college’s processes will be laid bare to them … They will have complete carte blanche to look at whatever they want to look at,” Professor Grigg said.

While Professor Grigg said it was “a bit rich” to describe the college as an “Anglo-Saxon old boys’ club”, work was underway to examine why female trainees had dropped out of the training program in the past. The college was also reviewing the cases of people whose traineeships had been terminated. 

The group’s deputy chair will be Dr Helen Szoke, the CEO of Oxfam who was previously Australia’s Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner following seven years as the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner.

Dr Joanna Flynn, Chair of the Medical Board of Australia, and Ken Lay, former Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, have also agreed to be part of the group, as have Mr Graeme Campbell, the college’s incoming Vice-President and Dr Cathy Ferguson, the incoming Chair of the College’s Professional Standards.

“The college recognises there are problems but is determined to be part of the solution,” said Professor Grigg.

The decision follows controversy around sexism and sexual harassment in medicine triggered by Sydney surgeon Gabrielle McMullin last week. On Friday, Dr McMullin said young doctors risked losing their careers if they reported male colleagues for sexual harassment or assault.  

Dr McMullin’s comments prompted more than a dozen female doctors to contact Fairfax Media and back her concerns about inadequate complaint processes that contributed to a culture of silence and fear. It also led Dr Tan, a surgeon who won a sexual harassment case against a colleague in 2008, to reveal that speaking up had derailed her career.

In response to their concerns, Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy said she would ask the Auditor-General to extend the scope of an investigation into occupational violence against health workers to include bullying and harassment.

She said she would ask the Auditor-General to examine the extent of bullying and harassment in Victorian hospitals and the state of current complaint processes, and to recommend ways in which the system could be improved.   

“I am very concerned by reports that incidents of bullying or harassment may be unreported for fear of reprisal,” Ms Hennessy said.

“Everyone is entitled to perform their jobs in a safe and professional environment, and it is vital that staff feel supported to make complaints about more senior staff.”

The report on occupational violence is due to be tabled in May and will focus largely on violence against healthcare workers from patients and visitors.  

Ms Hennessy flagged that a separate audit could also be set up to look at the issue if it could not be included in the occupational violence investigation.

While Dr McMullin has been widely criticised for her comment that female doctors would be better off accepting unwanted sexual advances from their colleagues rather than reporting misconduct, Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley said the focus needed to be on solutions.  

“These claims are disturbing and the focus needs to be on how the medical profession is stamping this out, not shooting the messenger for shining a light on such a sad state of affairs,” Ms Ley said.

“This is clearly an issue that revolves around attitudes and behaviours at its core and the only people that can truly drive this type of change is the medical fraternity itself.”

Ms Ley said state governments were best placed to deal with workplace issues in hospitals and that the medical profession needed to “drive reform internally within its membership”.