Sexual harassment in healthcare must stop – new GMC standards for doctors make clear

Zero tolerance of sexual harassment, including clear definitions of what constitutes it and an expectation that doctors who see such behaviour will act, will be included for the first time in new professional standards issued by the General Medical Council (GMC).The regulator has today published an update of Good medical practice, which details the principles, values and standards expected of doctors working in the UK. It is the first major update to the guidance in ten years.

Sexual harassment of colleagues is covered explicitly for the first time. The guidance says doctors ‘must not act in a sexual way towards colleagues with the effect or purpose of causing offence, embarrassment, humiliation or distress’.

The standards make clear this includes verbal or written comments and displaying or sharing images, as well as physical contact.

This adds to existing guidance that doctors must not act in a sexual way towards patients or use their professional position to ‘pursue a sexual or improper emotional relationship’.

For the first time the guidance also sets out what doctors should do if they witness bullying or harassment.

Professor Dame Carrie MacEwen, Chair of the GMC and a consultant ophthalmologist working in the NHS, said:

‘Sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination are entirely unacceptable. Where workplace cultures of this kind of behaviour go unchecked, they are detrimental to wellbeing, performance and patient safety. Doctors are increasingly, and bravely, speaking out about it, and as a regulator, it is important we leave no doubt that such behaviour has no place in our health services.

‘Those who experience harassment or discrimination must feel supported to speak out, by employers, peers, managers and leaders. We heard from thousands of doctors, patients and members of the public during this consultation. We hope that by addressing this issue so clearly in the standards, this will spark discussion on making meaningful cultural change throughout medicine.’

The updated Good medical practice, which comes into effect at the end of January following a five-month familiarisation period for doctors, includes an entire section devoted to ‘contributing to a positive working and training environment’.

It says doctors must behave in ways that create ‘a culture that is respectful, fair, supportive and compassionate’, and should be aware of how their behaviour may influence others.

Doctors who witness unacceptable behaviour, including any form of bullying, discrimination or harassment, should do something about it. The guidance suggests that, depending on circumstances, this could include:

  • offering support to the victim, including letting them know the behaviour witnessed is unacceptable
  • challenging the behaviour by speaking to the person responsible, either at the time, if safe to do so, or at an appropriate time and place
  • reporting the behaviour in line with workplace policies, making sure the person targeted is aware of and supports that intention.

It also makes clear the supportive role those in positions of formal leadership and management must play in making sure behaviours are addressed, dealt with promptly and escalated if necessary.

Good medical practice is intended as a framework to guide doctors when caring for patients and working with colleagues, allowing them to apply their professional judgement. It sets out the principles, values, and standards that are expected, including areas such as multi-disciplinary working and leadership, to help create workplaces which enable good teamwork.

Dame Carrie said:

Good medical practice must be a catalyst for creating supportive workplaces that will benefit patients as well as doctors. It sets the standards and professional behaviours that will help all doctors to provide the best possible care for their patients.’

The publication of the updated Good medical practice follows last year’s public consultation, the largest ever conducted by the GMC, on a draft version. It comes into effect from Tuesday 30 January 2024 and will apply to all doctors on the UK medical register.

Read the updated Good medical practice.