Sexual misconduct in doctor-student interactions
This case study was developed with the assistance of The 1752 Group and is based, with permission, on 'Sally's’ real-life story.
Content warning – This article includes mentions of sexual harassment, rape and violence.
Sally is a medical student. Her first clinical placement, which is four months long, requires her to live in hospital accommodation at some distance from her home, taking her away from her family, friends and support systems. Dr Scott is the main consultant on her ward.
Sally begins to receive persistent attention from Dr Scott, such as phone calls, telling her she is a brilliant student and offering to walk her home from work. Although hesitant at first, Sally is pleased that she has impressed him on the wards and flattered that such an experienced consultant would be interested in her.
Sally feels reluctant to refuse Dr Scott’s support, so she agrees to meet with him outside of work, eventually entering a relationship with him. Although Sally tells him that she does not want to have sex with him, Dr Scott frequently tells her that he does not accept this. Dr Scott persuades her to keep this relationship secret, but in their small community, Sally thinks that their colleagues and friends must be aware.
What the doctor should have considered
Sexual misconduct encompasses sexualised and predatory behaviours of doctors towards students, including 'grooming' and boundary-blurring of professional relationships into personal ones, as well as sexual coercion and exploited consent.
- Risk factors for inappropriate consensual relationships between colleagues include situations with large differences in power levels between colleagues. Or situations where training and career progression opportunities could be affected.
- Doctors must treat colleagues fairly and with respect and be aware of how their behaviour may influence others within and outside the team (Good medical practice, paragraphs 36–37). This includes maintaining appropriate professional boundaries and making sure that the culture of teams they are part of is safe for colleagues and patients.
When Sally moves on to her subsequent placement, the relationship ends. She visits Dr Scott once more, during which he rapes her and threatens her with harm if she tells anyone.
Sally looks back on the relationship and questions if it was, in fact, fully consensual; she feels coerced. Sally develops PTSD, and this very seriously affects her studies, eventually ending her career. She is concerned that Dr Scott is regularly targeting students but doesn’t know what she can do or who she can contact to try and stop this from happening to other students in her position.
Help and support
Help and support is available for anyone affected by sexual misconduct in the workplace.
Raising concerns about a colleague
Our ethical hub pages on Speaking up provide advice and tools to help you follow the processes set out in our guidance, as well as a list of organisations who can support you.
- Rape Crisis England and Wales, Rape Crisis Northern Ireland and Rape Crisis Scotland provide free, confidential emotional support, information and signposting by phone or email.
- NHS advice on help after rape and assault provides advice on what to do, the services that can help and how to support people.
- Rights of Women Sexual harassment at work advice helpline provides free and confidential legal advice to women and girls.
- SurvivorsUK operate a free, confidential national online helpline for men and boys.
- GALOP offer a free, confidential and independent helpline and support service for all LGBT+ people who have experienced sexual assault, violence or abuse.