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Sexual assault and domestic violence ‘going unchecked’ by regulators, NHS staff warn

Regulators are not dealing adequately with allegations against clinicians, according to campaigners  (PA)
Regulators are not dealing adequately with allegations against clinicians, according to campaigners (PA)

Patients and staff are in danger as regulators are accused of poor handling of sexual assault allegations made against doctors and nurses, The Independent has been told.

Campaigners and frontline staff who spoke to The Independent warned that professional regulators are not dealing adequately with allegations of sexual assault, harassment and domestic violence.

A study of rulings by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) has also revealed that male nurses account for 80 per cent of striking-off orders relating to sexual assault allegations, despite only making up 11 per cent of the register.

The warning comes after horrific details of rape and abuse by police officer David Carrick were uncovered this week.

Have you been impacted by this story? email rebecca.thomas@independent.co.uk

Dr Rebecca Cox, who helped sparked a major #MeToo movement in medicine and is co-founder of the Surviving in Scrubs campaign group, told The Independent: “There are great similarities, in the recent cases of prolific sexual harassment and assault, between the Met Police and the NHS.

“As an organisation, we have had multiple healthcare professionals contacting us desperate to seek support after facing repeated barriers when trying to report harassment and assault to their employing NHS organisation and regulators such as the GMC.

“Victims find their cases ignored or dropped without good reason, and perpetrators being able to continue working without repercussions. We need a public inquiry into sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault in healthcare.”

A study of fitness-to-practice hearings by the NMC, shared with The Independent, has found multiple cases in which nurses were prosecuted by the police for domestic violence or sexual assault but faced minimal repercussions under the nursing regulator.

In one case, a nurse convicted of and imprisoned for actual bodily harm against his wife was allowed to produce a “good character statement” during a hearing and was allowed to rejoin the nursing register without restrictions.

In another case, a nurse who had been placed on the register of sex offenders for groping a taxi driver while drunk was given a four-month suspension as the panel considered it a “lower-end” sexual assault.

Nurse Kat Barber, who carried out the study, said there was a “massive misunderstanding” of the context of gender-based violence by the regulator. She added: “In my opinion, [staff and patients] are enormously at risk because of the way [the NMC is] addressing domestic violence and assault.”

However, data shared by the NMC shows that the rate at which sexual assault allegations are progressed to investigation is far higher compared with allegations in general.

Lesley Maslen, executive director of professional regulation at the NMC, said: “There is no place for sexual and domestic abuse in society. We know this disproportionately affects women, who make up the majority of professionals on our register. Our data shows that anyone on our register who is found to have proven allegations of sexual misconduct is highly likely to be struck off.”

Ms Maslen said decisions made by the NMC are reviewed by the Professional Standards Authority, but that the council is always aiming to improve and will reflect on the cases highlighted. Last year the NMC published stronger guidance for those making decisions in such cases – in particular, decisions over their seriousness.

Figures shared by the General Medical Council (GMC) show that more than 500 sexual assault complaints to the doctors’ regulator were dropped between 2018 and 2021. However, data shows that only 45 per cent of sexual assault allegations are closed and not investigated compared to 85 per cent of cases overall.

One doctor told The Independent of her experience referring another doctor to the GMC following a sexual assault. Dr Ash, whose name has been changed, said she was sexually assaulted by a senior male consultant when she was a trainee.

Dr Ash said she didn’t feel she could report the consultant at the time, but referred him to the GMC after an encounter at an event years later. This was just prior to the pandemic, and it has taken three years for the case to be investigated and to conclude.

In its final ruling, the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS), a statutory committee of the GMC, found there was no case to answer, as it could not be proven that Dr Ash hadn’t given consent.

Dr Ash told The Independent: “The GMC is [just] pushing pieces of paper around. They don’t actually try and find out the truth. They take statements from the witnesses and their names. They have said, ‘Well, it’s totally understandable, you gave them no indication [of non-consent].’

“[The MPTS] said there was no relationship of trust between a consultant and a junior doctor, because the difference in age isn’t that much. They’re so far removed from the reality that they blame us for putting up with behaviour that someone in the office would never put up with, because of the urgency and importance and immediacy of our work with patients.”

Anthony Omo, general counsel and director of fitness to practise at the GMC, said: “There is no place for any form of sexual misconduct in the healthcare services. Sexual assault is a criminal offence, and any doctor who has committed such acts should be investigated by the police.”

He said the GMC works with police and employers to investigate concerns raised, and seeks opportunities to learn from every case.