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Addressing #MeToo in Healthcare

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ben Kalinkowitz
November 27, 2017

In the wake of countless brave women speaking out about the everyday harassment they face, I have started to rethink my role and complacency in workplace sexual harassment of my coworkers.

Excluding physicians, healthcare is a predominantly female profession, and physical therapy is an attractive career choice for athletic young women with an interest in healthcare. Often, I will find myself in a clinic where I am either the only or one of a few men. Sometimes, this helps me build rapport with male patients who feel more comfortable talking about their issues with me. Other times, it means a patient will feel comfortable making inappropriate jokes, whispering sexual innuendos or even telling me outright that they fantasize about one of my colleagues. Sometimes it was explicit: early in my career, a patient actually asked “Who’s the blonde chick? I’d <expletive> the blonde chick!” But more often, the comments would just hint at the client’s feelings: how lucky I was or how I could possibly focus on work in a place with “so many attractive ladies,” or a joke about how unlucky they were to be treated by the one physical therapist that wasn’t pretty to look at.

Healthcare providers face an added challenge when confronted with such behavior in their workplace — they must balance their duty to the patient in front of them with the goal of maintaining a safe work environment for colleagues. Of course, if an employee is the harasser, there is a (sometimes flawed) process to rectify the situation. However, when the patient is the harasser, there is less recourse. Obviously, there is no medical reason to transfer care because the patient wants to ogle the healthcare provider. However, providing evidence-based and patient-centric care means putting the patient/customer at the center. If I cannot choose to refuse treatment because of a patient’s belief system, regardless of how abhorrent I find those beliefs, am I required to stay silent when a patient makes jokes about my colleague’s sex life? An imperfect analogy: if a Nazi or a Klansman comes into the clinic, I have to provide them with the same level of care as I would provide anyone else. However, must I acquiesce their desire for only white providers? If I go out of our way to ensure religious Muslims and Jews are treated by a same gender provider, should I extend the courtesy to white nationalists?

I do not want to participate in racist ideology; however, as a clinician, I have to take into account the likelihood they are going to follow medical advice from a non-preferred provider. I also would not want to subject my coworkers to someone who questions their very right to exist. One might argue that by choosing to come into the clinic, the patient is taking the risk of having to interact with a variety of people, and my coworkers are competent clinicians who are able to handle difficult situations professionally. However, no clinic should tolerate a patient who starts screaming racial slurs at another individual. So too, clinicians should not tolerate patients or coworkers making inappropriate comments to or about women. It may not be possible to change minds and attitudes, but it is possible to change what is acceptable behavior. My reaction years ago was to ignore and attempt to redirect. In hindsight, that was wrong. My inaction perpetuated the hostile work environment my colleagues and I worked in. If I found it uncomfortable, surely it was worse for my targeted colleagues. I have started to find a better balance in providing patient centric care and shutting down harassment. It is not perfect, but it moves the ball forward. I urge my male colleagues to do the same.

Author: Benjamin Kalinkowitz, PT, DPT, MPA earned his Masters in Physical Therapy from Hunter College-CUNY, his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Kansas, and his MPA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Dr. Kalinkowitz has been a practicing physical therapist for 10 years, spending 8 years working at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and currently practices at an outpatient clinic in New Jersey. All views expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily represent the Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Government, or his current employer.

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