Australia's largest non-government provider of public hospitals has welcomed the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons' draft report into discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment (DBSH) calling it "brave" and a "strong step forward" in addressing the problem in hospitals and other health settings.
St Vincent's Health Australia – which operates the St Vincent's public hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne along with 12 other public and private hospitals around the nation – said while the level of DBSH uncovered by the inquiry was of great concern, it was pleased the report, pulled together by an Expert Advisory Group established by the College, mirrored many of the recommendations contained in the organisation's own submission to the inquiry.
"The College deserves recognition for the fearless way it's gone about addressing this issue and reporting on the results," said Dr Victoria Atkinson, SVHA's Group General Manager, Clinical Governance and Chief Medical Officer.
"To its credit, the College has acknowledged the scale of the problem, embraced the findings, apologised to past victims of DBSH, and appears determined to improve the situation.
"We're pleased to see the College's commitment to working more closely with hospitals when a complaint of DBSH has been upheld against a surgeon. There's currently no formal mechanism that allows hospitals to report surgeons to the College when DBSH occurs.
"Also that the College is prepared to remove Fellowship from clinicians found to have engaged in significant or repeated episodes of DBSH. Many surgeons are far more concerned about college accountability and the threat to Fellowship than a formal warning from a hospital.
"We also welcome the report's recognition that DBSH is a significant danger to patient safety. Research clearly demonstrates that intimidating and disruptive behaviour can foster medical errors.
"Between now and the final report's completion we look forward to further discussions with the College, including our invitation for our facilities to be used as a testing ground to develop, pilot and monitor policies to address DBSH.
"For example, one of the challenges all hospitals face is the divide between communications on DBSH at the facility level and the ongoing lack of personal accountability among some surgeons.
"By that we mean, all hospitals – including our own – have clear guidelines and processes set up to address DBSH. Hospitals regularly reach out to their staff with information and education about DBSH to reinforce appropriate behaviour: reporting of DBSH is encouraged, the consequences for such behaviour are clearly articulated.
"Yet the problem continues sector-wide: a small number of surgeons having a very significant and disproportionate impact on others, and not just female surgeons but also other staff. We need to close that gap.
"To be fair, this a problem that goes beyond just surgeons. Bullying and discrimination can exist among a range of staff – male and female – when the culture exists for it to thrive.
"We believe all healthcare providers need to send a strong message to the very small number of people engaged in this sort of behaviour that we are going to work together to stamp it out.
"We also want to send a message to our own employees – current and future – that our hospitals are places where they can progress their career, put their skills to good use and do so free from DBSH. That's certainly what we aspire to.
"While the results are concerning and a wake-up call to the sector, RACS needs to be commended on its efforts. This is a game-changing report and offers sunlight into an area that's remained hidden for far too long.
"On a personal note, I couldn't be more proud of my colleagues at the College in facing up to the truth and embracing the need for change. They will have a strong ally in St Vincent's Health Australia," said Victoria.