23 Aug 2018

Canterbury DHB accused of ignoring nurses' complaints of sexual harrassment by patients

6:50 am on 23 August 2018

Canterbury District Health Board is being accused of covering up widespread sexual harassment by patients.

Doctor hospital

Doctor hospital Photo: 123rf

In the past three years the DHB has recorded 137 incidents of patients behaving in a sexually abusive manner towards staff.

But nurses who have spoken to RNZ say complaints they have laid have been ignored by management.

DHB chief executive David Meates said he was extremely concerned to hear nurses did not feel their concerns had been responded to or treated seriously.

Annabel, which is not her real name, works as a nurse for the Canterbury District Health Board.

Since 2015, she has been sexually harassed by patients multiple times, she said.

"They range from lewd comments about how much I would cost an hour as a sex worker or how my rightful place as a nurse is on my knees performing sexual acts on them, to touches and attempted touches to my breasts, waist, and buttocks.

"These situations made me feel humiliated, scared, and angry. I still feel lucky that I was not one of the nurses I know who were forcibly kissed," she said.

Annabel said she was made to feel helpless and worthless every time she reported the harassment to managers.

"I was made to feel like there was something I could have done to minimise or prevent the harassment happening, when I was never at fault as the victim.

"I reported to management on all occasions, but the only time further action was taken was when I laid a formal complaint - and even then the harasser was given a verbal warning that no permanent record was made of.

"Other patients I know of who have sexually harassed myself or my colleagues on multiple occasions still receive care despite multiple reported incidents and a patient agreement clause that states patients can be discharged from the service if they physically, verbally, or sexually harass staff," she said.

The way the DHB responds to complaints from staff is cowardly and they'd rather cover up problems than deal with them, Annabel said.

She knows of nine other nurses who've reported being sexually harassed over the last four years.

One of them is Hannah, which isn't her real name, who said her buttocks were groped by a patient in 2016.

"I reported it, but nothing was done. Management seemed annoyed when I reported feeling too uncomfortable to continue working with that patient, meaning they had to allocate another nurse," she said.

In an Official Information Act response, dated 12 June, the DHB states it had not recorded any incidents nor received any complaints from staff in the past five years.

When contacted by RNZ, the DHB retracted the response and said a member of staff had misinterpreted RNZ's question.

Since 2015, the DHB had actually received 137 complaints of patients behaving in a sexually abusive manner towards staff.

The DHB would not provide anyone for interview but in a statement, chief executive David Meates said any form of abuse - including from patients towards staff - was taken extremely seriously.

"If someone doesn't think a concern they've raised has been appropriately addressed, there are a number of very clear pathways through which to escalate their concerns: these include raising the concerns with their line manager or clinical leader, raising the issue with our HR team or contacting their union.

"I would encourage these nurses to raise their concerns. This will enable us to directly address their issues," the statement said.

John Miller from the Nurses Organisation said it was disappointing nurses did not feel their complaints were being heard.

"If members are reporting that they are being sexual harassed to their employer, as with any employer, then the employer has a duty of care to make sure they respond appropriately, and act appropriately to keep their workers and safe and we'd expect that the CDHB, in this case, would do the same."

Nurses who considered their sexual harassment or assault were not being heard should contact the nurses' union, Mr Miller said.

*Are you a nurse or doctor and have experienced sexual harassment at work? Contact katie.scotcher@radionz.co.nz.