Doctor stands by comments that abused female surgeons need to 'toughen up'

Dr Peter Hilton, a retired anaesthetist, stood by his letter to The Times, saying female surgeons need to 'deal with it'.

Undated file photo of a surgery taking place. Almost one in three female surgeons working in the NHS have been sexually assaulted in the last five years, according to a new survey. Eleven instances of rape were reported by surgeons who took part in the study, published in the British Journal of Surgery. Issue date: Tuesday September 12, 2023.
Almost one in three female surgeons working in the NHS have been sexually assaulted in the last five years, according to a survey. (PA)

A retired anaesthetist who sparked controversy by saying "snowflake" female surgeons needed to "toughen up" has stood by his comments.

In a letter published by The Times newspaper on Wednesday, Dr Peter Hilton, a consultant between 1986 and 2020 from Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, Wales, wrote: "Medical training and practice is brutal and demanding, with long hours, and bullying happens. Sexually inappropriate comments and actions do occur."

He sent the letter in response to a survey published this week which revealed almost one in three female surgeons had been sexually assaulted in the past five years.

Female surgeons reported 11 instances of rape in the study, which was published in the British Journal of Surgery on Tuesday.

Hilton, 71, received a wave of backlash from health professionals over his letter, which was branded "abhorrent", but he said he stood by what he wrote.

In an interview with The Times after the letter was published, he said: "If these girls want to be a surgeons, they are going to have to deal with much more difficult things than another surgeon saying something inappropriate.”

He added: “I’m not the only one of my generation that feels like this. I’ve sent the letter to colleagues I worked with and they agree wholeheartedly. Medicine is not alone in having a culture of bullying, sexual abuse verbal or otherwise, and banter that’s in bad taste."

Hilton said he was “not condoning sexual harassment”, saying allegations of criminality should be investigated.

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He said: "You will meet people who are bullies, you will meet people who are misogynistic and do inappropriate things, but deal with it. It’s part of life. I’m not condoning it but it’s there. Deal with it."

The Association of Anaesthetists said Hilton's letter was "abhorrent".

It said on X, formerly known as Twitter: "The views in this letter are abhorrent, unrepresentative of the specialty of anaesthesia and we condemn them absolutely.

Doctors & Surgeons perform operation.
There were 11 instances of rape reported by surgeons who took part in the survey. (Alamy)

"We reiterate our public stand against all forms of sexual harassment and our support for the NHS England’s Sexual Safety Charter.

"We are astonished that The Times have chosen to publish this letter. Once again, one man has been given a platform to speak about something he will never be unanswerable for, yet millions of women live with the consequences of every day."

Compiled by the University of Exeter from 1,436 responses to an anonymous online survey, the research was commissioned by The Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery – a group of NHS surgeons, clinicians and researchers who say they are “working to raise awareness of sexual misconduct in surgery, to bring about cultural and organisational change”.

The report concluded: “Sexual misconduct occurs frequently and appears to go unchecked in the surgical environment owing to a combination of a deeply hierarchical structure and a gender and power imbalance.

“The result is an unsafe working environment and an unsafe space for patients.”

Chelcie Jewitt, the co-founder of Surviving in Scrubs, which records instances of sexual harassment and assault in healthcare and campaigns for change, is among those who have hit out at Hilton's "out-of-touch" letter.

"He has obviously never been a victim of sexual assault in the workplace," she told Yahoo News UK. "These instances are traumatising and there's vulnerability for what's going to happen to you personally, your professional life, your mental health and wellbeing.

"That this doctor thinks that those things should not be taken into consideration when that's basic human compassion is just really concerning for me.

"He's retired now, thankfully, because I'd be really concerned if I was his patient if that's the thought process he has. He comes across as really out of touch."

Sexual harassment and the NHS: in numbers

  • Almost 90% of women said they had witnessed sexual misconduct in the past five years, with 81% of men giving the same answer.

  • Only 53% of medical schools offered “some or good sexual harassment training”.

  • Some 8% of healthcare staff reported being sexually harassed in 2019.

  • Sexual harassment was most often committed by colleagues (54%).

  • Some 31% of people who had been sexually harassed said it had happened regularly.