Sexual Violence in Medicine: Is there a “Tik Tok Doc” at every hospital?
By Dr. Aldene Zeno
I’m on faculty at an academic hospital, and yesterday one of my fellows noticed that her Twitter feed was blowing up with a disturbing story: another male doctor accused of sexual misconduct. The unnamed plaintiff is suing members of the accused’s training institution, Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), for sexual assault. The $45 million lawsuit names a slew of faculty, including women prominent in the Times Up Healthcare campaign. The lawsuit accuses OHSU of failing to take action against the physician’s misconduct, despite the plaintiff properly reporting harassment with lewd text messages, a pornographic image sent by social media, and an assault when he supposedly cornered the defendant, pressing an erect penis into her back.
The accused perpetrator is a physician who was a resident at the time of the alleged incidents. This is unusual because residents are physicians in training, and in this subversive role they’re usually the ones at risk of being mistreated. The other interesting thing is that he’s not just any doctor: he’s a viral internet sensation, the dancing “Tik Tok Doc.” During my maternity leave I saw him on Good Morning America, and during the Biden inauguration he was featured on the virtual Parade Across America. At that time, I was actual happy to see a brother “make it” as a physician and (social media) famous person. It’s disappointing to now learn that he is being accused of sexual impropriety at work.
My brief brush with sexual misconduct
When I was a medical student, I had a subtle but still unsettling experience with one of my attending physicians. I was sitting in a room with an older, white male physician. I can’t remember if I was working in his clinic or if we were doing a lecture together, but it’s not uncommon for physicians to teach one-on-one in the clinical setting. He asked about my background, like where I’m from, which is usually how people ask me my ethnic background since I’m bi-racial. It told him I was half Filipina and Black, and he proceeded to put his hand on my exposed knee (I was wearing a knee-length skirt) and tell me the following joke: “How do they send mail in the Philippines? In a Manila envelope!” Manila is the capital of the Philippines…it’s still not funny if you already knew that. I did my best fake half-laugh and pushed aside my discomfort with the whole situation.
Fortunately, that has been the extent of my inappropriate physical contact during training. Looking back, it still makes me feel uncomfortable but I think the physician was mostly harmless and ignorant of his inappropriate behavior. Unfortunately, it’s not that only time that I’ve been singled out with race-based “jokes,” or otherwise experienced racism as a physician both in training and even as a faculty member. I know that many have suffered worse.
Sexual misconduct is not uncommon in medicine
In one survey of gynecologists, 28% of the surveyed physicians had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and of those respondents, 84% were female. Others even endorsed experiencing work-related sexual assault. The downstream effects were numerous, including effects on work and interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, few of these victims (8%) reported their incidents to higher authorities due to fear of retaliation, minimizing (ex/ “not a big deal,” “it only happened once”), or not knowing who to report to.
There are multiple reports on sexual misconduct with physicians as perpetrators and patients as victims. When I started work at my institution, a large scandal had just been reported there through the LA Times, about the dean of the medical school engaging in sexually inappropriate behavior (and many other inappropriate behaviors) while in his office at the medical school. Additionally, in my own specialty of OB-Gyn, we are among the physicians most cited for perpetrating sexual misconduct compared with other specialties.
The good news is that people are talking about sexual violence in medicine. The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns have given many victims the space to share their stories, even when the sexual impropriety is among physicians. Within my own medical specialty, leaders are calling out lewd behaviors among colleagues in national meetings and through publications. In my opinion, we have to start in our own workplace. We cannot tolerate sexually inappropriate “jokes” in those common areas where students and support staff are working, even if the conversation is supposed to be casual among colleagues. For people in leadership — we have to be proactive and responsive. We have an obligation to protect our colleagues, our trainees, and our patients. We’ve all taken the oath, “Do no harm.” It shouldn’t take a $45 million lawsuit for us to wake up.