“Time for action”: Vascular Society president responds to sexual misconduct in surgery report

Rachel Bell

Rachel Bell (Newcastle, UK) shares her thoughts on a recent UK survey that highlights the prevalence of sexual misconduct within surgery and advises what should be done to address the issue. 

Sexual harassment and misconduct in medicine is sadly too common and has been tolerated, hidden and brushed under the proverbial carpet for too long. So I would like to say a big thank you to Professor Carrie Newlands and her team for publishing this important work that has empowered us to take back some control and endeavour to change our culture.

As a woman in medicine, I was completely unsurprised by the findings of the report and that is simply because I know of no female colleague that does not have an ugly story about inappropriate behaviour, misogyny or gaslighting in their career. However, I must seriously scold myself for my response because it seems that over the last 30 years somehow, I have become so accustomed to bad behaviour that I no longer see it. Anyone who knows me would say that usually I have no problem sharing my opinions or figuratively putting my head above the parapet—so why have I not been shouting at the top of my lungs? Do not get me wrong, over the years I have called out bad behaviour, but, in my experience, when you do this no one in your organisation knows what to do, no one wants to hear what you have to say, very few people know how to support you, and 9.9 times out of 10 the behaviour goes unchallenged. In truth I feel ashamed that I have not used my voice to speak up. Thankfully, this report has made people sit up and listen and it is time for change. In my opinion there are two areas of change that would make a difference.

The first is we need to actively work to change surgical culture. Whilst I am obviously biased and believe that surgery is an incredible specialty, that has been enriched by our increasing diversity, there is no doubt in my mind that our culture needs to change. We need to ensure our fantastic, talented workforce feel safe, supported, and protected at work. The responsibility for that culture change lies with all of us.

The second is that we desperately need an independent national body for confidential reporting and investigation of sexual misconduct within our profession. It should no longer fall under the purview of individual organisations as it is so difficult to manage well and is universally done poorly. Thanks again Carrie and team and the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery (WPSMS) for your excellent paper and report—now it is time for action.

Rachel Bell is a consultant vascular surgeon at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, UK, and current president of the Vascular Society of Great Britain and Ireland (VSGBI).


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