#MeToo & medicine: How a social movement went viral and changed everything

 

In Oct. 2017, actor Alyssa Milano first drew viral attention to sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood when she tweeted with the hashtag #MeToo.

The phrase “Me Too” as it relates to sexual assault and harassment was actually first coined in 2006, by social activist Tarana Burke. Before #MeToo, other hashtags, including #MyHarveyWeinstein, #YouOkSis, #WhatWereYouWearing and #SurvivorPrivilege, trended their way across social media.

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The vast majority of Alberta doctors treat their patients with respect and professionalism. However, because of the heightened awareness around the power imbalance between health professionals and patients, we need to work together to ensure patients feel safe and secure.

There was something unique about the social landscape in late 2017 and throughout 2018 that opened the floodgates—first for dialogue, then for a revolution. In January 2018, the TIME’S UP™ movement was born as a response to the overwhelming push for meaningful change.

All too soon, it became clear there was a systemic problem—sexual assault and harassment don’t just happen in show business. Areas like politics, the financial industry, religious institutions, education, the world of sports and, most poignantly for physicians, medicine and health care are not immune to what’s happening in the world.

The impact of #MeToo on health care

The vast majority of Alberta doctors treat their patients with respect and professionalism. However, because of the heightened awareness around the power imbalance between health professionals and patients, we need to work together to ensure patients feel safe and secure. Physician sexual assault of patients is rare, but when it does happen, the effects are incredibly damaging to patients involved, public trust and the profession as a whole.

In the past, we often heard patients assume there are checks and balances in place to ensure medical professionals were doing their jobs, but there wasn’t an appetite to see the evidence of that until recently. Over 2018, it became increasingly obvious that society’s expectation for patient safety called for stronger legislation. This caused the medical profession to revisit our own regulatory processes to ensure we could safeguard trust, a critical element in a patient-physician relationship.

Bill 21 helps the medical profession keep patients safe 

Today, patients want to see proof that self-regulating professions are doing their jobs—they need transparency and stronger rules. In response, the government drafted Bill 21: An Act to Protect Patients. This amendment to the Health Professions Act was passed November 8, 2018, with the support of the College.

In 2018, we enhanced our transparency in publishing disciplinary information and made changes to our website so it’s easier for the public to find which physicians in Alberta are currently involved in the discipline process.

The new Bill allowed the College and other regulators to use new and effective tools to regulate sexual misconduct in the profession and ensure patients are protected. Before the end of 2018, with the help of our members, the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE), the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services (AASAS) and other stakeholders, we drafted a standard of practice on Sexual Abuse and Sexual Misconduct. We endorsed action to seek higher penalties in cases of serious sexual abuse and misconduct, including cancellation of a member’s practice permit. The new standard took effect April 1, 2019.

These are great steps towards a more transparent system in which patients feel secure. However, there is still more to do. Throughout 2019, we will continue to strengthen our discipline process, using feedback from legal counsel. We’ll improve transparency for members and the public by enhancing our website and internal processes. And we’ll begin to work in partnership with other health professions to develop an inter-regulatory victim treatment and counselling fund, to support those who have been victimized by a medical professional. It’s important work for Colleges to engage in, and we all have a long way to go.

Our message to doctors in the midst of the #MeToo era: patients should feel safe with their doctors. While sexual assault of patients is thankfully rare, it is our collective job to make sure these new standards enhance existing trust and restore trust lost.