ACT News

Canberra medical students seek support after harassment in hospitals

Medical students have continued to complain about sexual harassment and bullying in Canberra hospitals, prompting student representatives to call for cultural reform and accountability.

The complaints come after a number of reports confirmed bullying, discrimination and harassment were rife in Canberra hospitals and a major concern among junior doctors.

Medical students have continued to complain about sexual harassment and bullying in Canberra hospitals.
Medical students have continued to complain about sexual harassment and bullying in Canberra hospitals.  Photo: Joe Armao

Matt Lennon, vice-president of the Australian Medical Students Association, said his organisation had been contacted by many Canberra-based students alleging improper behaviour in the workplace.

We're seriously concerned," he said. "Surveys demonstrate that around half of all medical students have been bullied or sexually harassed with a much greater preponderance of women being affected.

"In many cases it contributes to genuine, lasting mental health issues."

Last week, a report commissioned by the Australian Medical Association ACT found 50 per cent of junior doctors had been bullied and 4 per cent had experienced sexual harassment in 2015.


When asked whether they believed there were adequate structures in place to report concerns, 58 per cent of respondents said no.

The results showed that 63 per cent felt unable to raise concerns without recrimination and 17 per cent said they experienced overt threats of not being reappointed. About 10 per cent of respondents didn't report any workplace problems.

Most respondents worked at Canberra Hospital (88 per cent), followed by Calvary Hospital and a small number worked at Goulburn and Bega hospitals.

Mr Lennon said many junior doctors were unwilling to report their experiences due to fear of reprisal or "an internalised perception that such bullying is normal and you would be considered soft if you complained about it".

"Those with the power have to know that they cannot get away with abusing it," he said. "This will mean that the perpetrators will have to be genuinely punished rather than being shifted around or protected by their employer."

His comments are similar to those made by Calvary Hospital chief executive Karen Edwards in a submission to a Royal Australasian College of Surgeons report on hospital culture.

"History will show that those who speak out are immediately labelled as whistleblowers and rarely survive the investigative processes and outcomes even if proven right," she said.

"The penalties applied are often non-existent or make a mockery of the process. This leads to a culture of under-reporting."

In October, a KPMG report on Canberra Hospital uncovered claims of sexual harassment and propositions in the workplace, items thrown at staff, belittled complainants, public humiliation, and abusive phone calls, text messages and emails.

It said 76 per cent of respondents had observed bullying, discrimination and harassment, and complaints were unlikely to be resolved in timely or effective ways.

The ACT government has accepted and vowed to implement all seven recommendations from the report and announced a committee to report on the progress of the report.

When the report was released, ACT AMA president Dr Elizabeth Gallagher welcomed the recommendations but voiced concerns the government had not prioritised engagement with junior doctors and representatives.

"We have serious concerns that the recommended internal ACT Health process will almost inevitably fail to resolve the issues," she said.

The audit firm invited 401 hospital staff, from executive directors and clinical directors, to focus groups in July, although only 62 participated. Of the 50 directors invited, 22 turned up. In October, ACT Health Minister Simon Corbell said the government would work with all relevant stakeholders to address the problem.