Harassment in Healthcare: Creating a Safe Environment for Staff and Patients

It’s easy for healthcare leaders to believe that the presence of a sexual harassment policy and dedication of human resources office staff will prevent and mitigate any allegations, but policy isn’t enough.

Hospitals and other healthcare organizations need an established, thoughtful procedure for the prevention, detection, and remediation of allegations.

Allegations and incidences of sexual harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment have captured the attention of the national press. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities are not exempt from this concern. Anyone who has worked as a staff member can recount an allegation or story about an incident indicative of harassment.

Some healthcare environments are more prone to these issues than others.

Think of the closed environment of an operating room: filled with tension, very clearly defined authority, and prescribed roles. When something goes wrong or delays occur, tempers flare, words are exchanged, and some staff feel (or are) demeaned, degraded, or even physically assaulted. And though frequently cited, ORs aren’t the only location of allegations. ERs, a closed psych unit, treatment rooms, and even offices all have been reported as locations for inappropriate conduct or language.

Sexual Harassment and Hostile Work Environments: What This Means for Healthcare Organizations

As media reports continue to emerge on this troubling trend, hospitals and health systems can anticipate increased reporting related to sexual harassment and hostile work environments.

And what’s more, regulators and surveyors—especially The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and The Joint Commission (TJC)—pay careful attention to the news and trends in public interest.

Sexual harassment is generally defined as uninvited and unwelcome verbal and/or physical behavior of a sexual nature, creating a potentially hostile work environment.  

Though sexual harassment is not yet perceived as a usual part of accreditation and/or regulatory focus, TJC requires that its accredited facilities meet all applicable laws (including, for example, provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), and CMS is stringent about protecting patient rights (CMS Tag A-0145), including the right to receive care without harassment.

Compass’ Approach to Creating a Safe Environment of Care for All

It’s easy for healthcare leaders to believe that the presence of a sexual harassment policy and dedication of human resources office staff will prevent and mitigate any allegations, but policy isn’t enough. Hospitals and other healthcare organizations need an established, thoughtful procedure for the prevention, detection, and remediation of allegations.

To assist organizations in establishing these procedures, Compass has a team of consultants equipped to address concerns of harassment and hostile work environment from multiple angles, including clinical, leadership, and human resources. Our goal is to help hospitals deliver safe, effective, and efficient care, while maintaining full compliance with applicable standards and regulations, including assurance of a safe and effective work environment for all, regardless of gender, role, or position.

Establishing a Safe Environment for Staff and Patients

Compass will partner with the organization to implement three key pillars of a safe, harassment-free environment: prevention, detection, and remediation:

Prevention

Prevention requires a defined institutional policy that is communicated, implemented, and enforced.

The Board and the C-suite need to be involved in developing or improving the organization’s harassment policies. Education plans and training should be the protocol at every level of the organization. The rights of patients and staff to a safe, productive care environment should be clearly and frequently communicated as part of the organization’s culture.

Compass will work with the organization to establish the policies, education, training, and communication plans that support a safe, harassment-free environment for all. 

Detection

Victims or observers of harassment must be able to report within a transparent structure of non-disclosure and without fear of punishment.

The Compass team will perform an assessment to help leadership have a clearer picture of what’s really happening in their organization and whether staff members feel that there are appropriate reporting measures in place to support a safe environment.

This assessment will include document reviews; interviews with hospital staff, medical staff, and leadership; and an audit of past and current incidents, including call records and investigations. This phase will also include focused surveys of areas of higher potential risk, and review of training, education, and – most importantly – culture, including power relationships and how they contribute to potential incidents or patterns of harassment.

Compass will then work with leadership and human resources offices to establish confidential and anonymous methods to report policy noncompliance, whether involving self or observed incidents. Through this process, Compass will serve as third party to which members of the organization can safely share their concerns without fear of retribution.

Remediation

There must be public communication of incidents and responses provided to the organization and all of its members and visitors, making clear that the compliance requirements are taken seriously at all levels of the organization, from the Board and on down.

Following the prevention and detection phases, Compass will help leadership address deficiencies uncovered. The Compass team will then work with client leadership to ensure that education and disciplinary responses are robust, multidisciplinary, and timely.

Prevention and early intervention can mitigate areas of risk. Communication and implementation plans, cultural standards and expectations, and systems and procedures for reporting and responding are critical. A safe, harassment-free environment can’t just be a policy – it has to be part of your culture.

As more and more attention is paid to harassment and hostile work environments, hospitals and other healthcare organizations should prepare for a proactive stance. Prevention, detection, and remediation are the key components of a successful approach to assuring a safe and productive care environment.

Contact Us

Compass can help your organization identify opportunities to improve your culture of safety. To ensure that your organization doesn’t receive unwanted scrutiny for failure to create a work environment conducive to patient safety, contact Kate Fenner, RN, PhD, Managing Director at (513) 241.0142, via email, or via the contact form below for a confidential discussion of your concerns and to schedule an assessment of safe work practices in your organization.