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Fenwick KM, Luger TM, Dyer KE, Chrystal JG, Hamilton AB, Yano EM, Klap R. Challenges to Addressing Patient-Perpetrated Sexual Harassment in Veterans Affairs Healthcare Settings. Journal of general internal medicine. 2021 Aug 1; 36(8):2332-2338.
BACKGROUND: Patient-perpetrated sexual harassment adversely affects healthcare organizations, staff, and other patients, yet few institutions have clear policies to address it. Understanding the challenges to addressing patient-perpetrated harassment can inform development of institutional guidelines and interventions. OBJECTIVE: To identify challenges and stakeholder-driven recommendations for addressing patient-perpetrated sexual harassment of women staff and patients at Veterans Health Administration (VA) facilities. DESIGN: We conducted qualitative interviews with 24 staff, clinicians, and administrators across four VA healthcare facilities. PARTICIPANTS: We used snowball sampling to identify stakeholders with expertise in overseeing care environments, providing care to women patients, and/or managing disruptive patient behavior. APPROACH: We interviewed participants in-person or via phone using a semi-structured guide. Two members of the research team analyzed the interview data using the constant comparative method. KEY RESULTS: Participants identified challenges to addressing patient-perpetrated harassment of women staff and patients that were interrelated and spanned multiple levels. Perceived organizational-level challenges included a climate of tolerance for harassment, lack of formal policies, and insufficient leadership support. At the staff level, perceived challenges included ambiguity around defining harassment, fear of negatively impacting patient-staff dynamics, and competing priorities. Finally, participants identified patient-level challenges, including patient characteristics such as age, cognitive impairment, and psychiatric diagnoses that complicated assessments of intentionality and culpability. Participant recommendations focused on development and implementation of policies, reporting systems, public norms campaigns, staff and patient education, and bystander intervention training. CONCLUSIONS: VA offers unique opportunities for studying patient-perpetrated harassment of women staff and patients due to its majority-male patient population, culture informed by military gender norms, and commitment to reducing harassment at its facilities. Our findings highlight the complexity of addressing patient-perpetrated harassment and underscore the need for systemic, multilevel interventions.