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For nurses, sexual harassment from patients is 'par for the course'

by Elizabeth Chuck /  / Updated 

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While treating male patients, it's not unusual for Meghann Justice, an emergency room nurse, to be called a "cute little thing." Or to have a patient expose himself. Or to have her breasts grabbed as she leans over to put in an IV line.

"It just comes par for the course, unfortunately," Justice, a travel nurse who has worked in ERs across the country for the past six years, said. "In the ER especially, we're very hands-on with our patients and physically close to them, and sometimes they're inebriated, or on drugs, or very ill."

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Justice and others hope to highlight what women who work in the medical profession encounter on a regular basis.

"I think it's really important to shine a light on this and to let people know that these are conversations we have at the nursing stations," Justice, 38, said. "We'll trade war stories."

Justice spoke to NBC News and shared a story that many others did during an investigation into another aspect of harassment that women in the male-dominated field of medicine frequently face: inappropriate conduct from their male peers or superiors. Over the course of several months, women residents, nurses, and surgeons told NBC News about rampant misconduct, including vulgar comments from male physicians, whispered to them in operating rooms over anesthetized patients; propositions in hospital call rooms; and questions about their bra sizes from male co-workers.

Many of the women also mentioned how common sexual harassment from patients is. A poll published earlier this month by Medscape Medical News found that 71 percent of nurses said they had been harassed by a patient.

"We're not all wearing short little white dresses and fish nets"

Sexual harassment has "been going on for decades" in nursing, said Dr. Seun Ross, the director of nursing practice and work environment at the American Nurses Association, which represents more than 3 million nurses. But that's no excuse for the misconduct, Ross said.

"I think sexual harassment in general is probably one of the most persistent problems in the workplace, but in terms of nursing, the lines are blurred because we see patients in their most vulnerable state, some that require patients to get naked, and unfortunately, people take certain liberties that they wouldn't have had they been fully clothed," she said.

Part of why the problem has persisted is because of the unique dynamic between a patient and a treatment team, experts say: Ethically, nurses and others must treat a sick patient.

Like sexual harassment victims in other industries, those in the medical profession are protected by the Title VII federal law that prohibits gender discrimination, plus state laws, said Scotty Shively, a Little Rock, Arkansas-based arbitrator and mediator who has practiced employment and health care law for years.

It's up to the health care organization to protect their employees. But because it's also their obligation to treat the patients who come to them, addressing harassment from a patient, or the family member of a patient, can get tricky.

"If a customer is in a store, you would feel much more within you're rights to say 'You're not welcome to shop here.' But it gets complicated when you have a patient," Shively said. "You might have patients who really aren't in their right minds, or elderly, or on some kind of medication that would cause something like that to happen."

Related: Women in medicine want their #MeToo

So hospitals are forced to get creative, usually first talking to the patient about the behavior, and then through reassigning staff if that doesn't work.

"The typical solution would be for the employer to send another nurse in there with the patient, have someone go in with her, or make a reassignment" so the nurse who has been harassed no longer interacts with that patient, Shively said.

Ross, of the American Nurses Association, urged nurses and other women in medicine to speak up for themselves.

"Nurses are excusing that as, 'that's just men being men,' but I think once we understand what the true definition of sexual harassment is, which is any advances that are unwelcome or unsolicited that are sexual, and we stop excusing it, then the change will happen," she said. "We want to drive accountability so we're able to enforce consequences, and once we do that, you'll see more and more nurses speak out."

Justice, the travel ER nurse, said change will start once the profession of nursing as a whole is no longer sexualized.

"The stereotype of the sexy nurse — a lot of people just have that idea in their head, even though it may not necessarily apply," she said. "We're not all wearing short little white dresses and fish nets."

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