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Medicine Has Its Own #MeToo Problems. Can Time’s Up Healthcare Fix It?

When sexual harassment happens in medicine, it can be life or death.

“It feels even more imperative because lives are at stake, and yet we [the medical field] are less interested,” says Esther Choo, an associate professor in the Center for Policy & Research in Emergency Medicine at Oregon Health & Science and one of the driving forces behind Time’s Up Healthcare, a new division of the anti-sexual harassment and discrimination organization that’s launching Thursday.

Time’s Up, founded in 2018 by women in entertainment and since expanded to tech and advertising, has made its way to the health care industry with many of the same concerns: safe and dignified work for all workers in the industry, protection from harassment and retaliation, and equitable compensation for women and men at every level.

But the health care field has its own unique set of problems: how do you protect workers experiencing toxic work in a variety of environments, from a health aide working in a patient’s home to a physician in a hospital? What can be done when a patient is the one harassing a health care professional, or when a toxic work environment leads to worse patient care? How do you counter professional environments that have hierarchical power structures baked into their DNA from medical school onward?

“In health care, if our workplace is toxic, that toxicity bleeds out onto our patients,” Choo says. “We have to make sure our house is clean before we welcome patients into it.”

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Without celebrities or prominent CEOs, the #MeToo movement in medicine hasn’t captured public attention quite as strongly as it has in other industries, despite the wildfire spread of hashtags like #MeTooSTEM. But health care has seen similar #MeToo stories unfold over the past year-and-a-half. A long-awaited National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study last summer found that sexual harassment is rampant throughout the sciences and drives women out of their fields. One of the highest-profile individual cases in the past year has been at Yale University where Michael Simons, a cardiologist and researcher received a prestigious endowed chair despite a history of sexual harassment. Yale later stripped Simons of the honor after public outcry.

Time’s Up Healthcare’s 50 founding members plan to approach this set of problems as they would an academic study. “We really do want to study this. We really do want to look at the data that’s out there,” says Rhonda Acholonu, a founding member of the group and an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore and New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

The organization hasn’t set numerical benchmarks, but it does have three guiding principles: that sexual harassment and gender inequity have no place in the health care workplace; that every employee should have equitable opportunity, support, and compensation; and that it’s impossible to address a problem without understanding its scope and impact.

Time’s Up Healthcare is arriving at a difficult moment for Time’s Up. The umbrella organization’s President and CEO Lisa Borders resigned earlier this month after four months on the job after her own son was accused of sexual misconduct. “Nothing about our mission or vision or values changed,” Choo says of the setback. “We’re an organization of many people and nothing changes because of one person.”

Many of Time’s Up Healthcare’s founding members have been leaders in the movement for diversity and equality in medicine long before the launch of Time’s Up. The hope is that the Time’s Up label will allow these professionals to connect with the other industries under the Time’s Up roof and benefit from the organization’s structure and grip on public interest.

“There is nothing that’s unique to physicians here,” Choo says of the group’s goals, referring to other kinds of health care professionals. “It’s the same issues for nurses, for advanced practice providers, for clinical pharmacists, social workers, nurse’s aides, home health aides, people working in nursing homes, in people’s personal homes. Those in more privileged roles in health care are obligated to speak up. When we speak up about health care, it’s for every single worker in health care.”