The Delicate Nature of Caring for Sexual Assault Patients

An American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. No matter your specialty, the odds are high you will treat a victim. Keep these things in mind, when you do.

This week, the hashtag #BelieveSurvivors has trended heavily across all forms of social media, due in part to the claims of sexual assault levied against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Politics aside, as a nurse, there is a strong likelihood you will encounter sexual assault patients during the course of your career, given that an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. That prevalence means that even if you aren’t a forensic nurse examiner or don’t work in emergency or psych, it is important that you be equipped with an understanding of how to handle the unique emotional aspects of sexual violence, as well as a practical approach to caring for the victim.

While every sexual assault patient you encounter will be inherently different from the next, keep these things in mind, as you provide them with care:

  • Check Your Judgment at the Door: It is not your place to assign blame, especially not upon the victim. The task of assigning blame comes later; that is a legal process. No matter the physical or mental state your patient appears to be in—be they male or female or drunk or in a state of undress or crying hysterically—it is not your place to criticize them in any way. It is your place to help them and give them the care they need in a safe environment, free of skepticism, while documenting everything from injuries sustained to their mental state in an unbiased manner. Be mindful of your tone, actions, and facial expressions, and most importantly, listen to the patient.
  • The Victim Comes First: The comfort of the sexually assaulted patient should be paramount. Consult with the patient to conclude whether or not a gender preference of caregiver exists, and respect those wishes, if so. It is your responsibility to advocate for the patient’s needs, and this may require a level of patience and a time commitment your other patients do not demand of you.
  • Be Compassionate: As a nurse, compassion likely courses through your veins, and in this instance, that is a very good thing. Above all else, allow your humanity to shine through, while maintaining your professionalism. Believe them, empathize with them, put yourself in their shoes—after all, given the statistics, they could very well be you.

Disclaimer: The viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at Healthcare Staffing Innovations, LLC.

Physical Therapy Has a Sexual Harassment Problem

More than 80% of PTs and PTAs report experiencing sexual harassment at some point in their career, a staggering number that has not declined since it was first reported 20 years ago.

A 2016 study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination—showed that 25% of women will be the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace. That number could actually be as high as 85%, however, as it is also estimated by the EEOC that 75% of those who are victims will not report harassment for a multitude of reasons, including fear of repercussions or retaliation, or due to outright trauma. In a female-dominated profession, such as Physical Therapy, those numbers are particularly alarming, especially when you consider research that indicates the risk for nonfatal violence in the workplace is 16 times greater for healthcare professionals in the U.S. than it is for other professionals.

A 1997 study of PTs found that the prevalence of inappropriate patient sexual behavior (defined as leering and sexual remarks to deliberate touch, indecent exposure, and sexual assault) over the length of a career averaged 81% to 86%, and those numbers have not declined. Twenty years later, a 2017 survey of 892 PTs, PTAs, and PT students found that 84% had experienced inappropriate patient sexual behavior at some point during their careers or training, and 47% encountered it over the prior 12 months. A study published just this June found similar results—38.5% of 1,027 PTs, PTAs, and PT students responded that they had faced inappropriate patient sexual behavior over the prior 12 months.

The is no way to dispute such numbers; the problem is pervasive, and clearly persistent. But what can be done?

In June of 2018, the APTA House of Delegates voted unanimously to strengthen their position on sexual harassment, encouraging incidents of harassment to be reported. On a clinical level, this means enacting stronger sexual harassment policies, including complaint processes that are easy for victims to navigate. As with most forms of sexual violence, it becomes the unfortunate burden of the victim to bravely speak out and report the incident, in an effort to stop others from being harmed by the same perpetrator in the future. Given the stance of the APTA and stronger policies at clinics across the country, and in this age of #MeToo, with the declining number of stigmas related to being a victim of sexual violence, it is hopeful to think that these crimes against clinicians will not go underreported much longer, and will, in turn, protect future PTs and PTAs from experiencing the same dangers.

This problem will not go away, unless action is taken to stop it.

We urge PTs and PTAs to familiarize themselves with their employer’s sexual harassment policies and procedures, and to inquire about any available sexual harassment training.

If you have been a victim of sexual assault in the workplace, we encourage you to call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Disclaimer: The viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at Healthcare Staffing Innovations, LLC.