Sexual Harassment Can Create Havoc In Healthcare Settings

April 1, 2021
April 1, 2021

Sexual harassment isn’t limited to the entertainment industry, of course, and few would dispute that it occurs in most every type of workplace. But healthcare? Yes, and in ways that can be difficult to root out, says Sheryl Vacca, Senior Vice President and Chief Risk Officer at Providence St. Joseph Health, a $24-billion company with 130,000 caregivers in seven states. As a former RN who has moved through different roles in healthcare and now oversees audit, risk management, and information security teams, Vacca says she has seen the problem, and it’s something that any compliance officer must know how to handle.

“Previous to my current role I was at the University of California, and in colleges sexual harassment is a very huge issue,” Vacca says. “And what I’m finding in healthcare is that we’re slow to come around related to sexual harassment and retaliation.”

In addition to the obvious harm inflicted on the victim, healthcare as an industry will suffer if it doesn’t address the issue, she notes.

“That fear will clamp down on the person wanting to share anything further, and they will leave that environment in a very unhealthy state. There’s always the hierarchy of who’s sort of the king or queen of the setting and very commonly in healthcare the physician has been that point person. [Healthcare] has long been paternalistic because in the earlier days of healthcare it was very male-oriented. Even so, has [sexual harassment] has been pervasive in health care? Maybe not in the hospital settings, but perhaps in the ambulatory and outpatient arenas where there might be less visibility.”

Best practices to tackle a culturally sensitive topic

For those reasons, she adds, a young or new compliance officer starting out might be wise to study the issue and stand ready to put policies into place if they do not exist already. That way the ground has been prepared if problems arise.

“The first thing is that you’ve got to do is make your leaders aware of what are the right things to say and the wrong things to say or do,” she explains. “The awareness aspect has changed: before you might give somebody a hug, or you might say, ‘Oh, nice going,’ and punch them in the arm or whatever. Now there’s so much more sensitivity around any kind of physical touch or activity—and in some cases I think that’s rightly so. But we are expecting more from everyone’s interactions and need to get permission where we didn’t before, such as asking before giving a hug. That’s quite hard for individuals who never had any sexual identity associated with that act; it’s just something that they do for compassion.”

She advocates training and policy as underpinnings that will support staff as they work to be aware of, and to change, existing behaviors that can be problematic even with innocent intent, such as hugging or other touch.

“Having the policy is always good for when people feel that they have something they want to discuss, and if they actually want to report it. Then make sure that that report is acted on quickly. Awareness and training are absolutely things that have to happen and be ongoing. And frankly, in our environment, [we must be aware of the] sort of power in healthcare, such as the power a physician holds. They are the person who makes the key decisions, so is that power influencing whether an individual is going to be fearful in reporting what is going on? It is important to get to every aspect of where care is being provided, or your services are being provided, and ensure that individuals feel that they’re in a safe environment and one allows them, if they see it, they can say it.”

About Sheryl Vacca:

Healthcare compliance expert Sheryl Vacca is Senior Vice President and Chief Risk Officer at Providence St. Joseph Health, a $24-billion company with 130,000 caregivers in seven states. Her responsibilities include oversight for compliance, audit, risk management, and information security. Previously, she served as the system-wide senior vice president for chief compliance and audit officer at the University of California. Vacca has received awards from the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) and the Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA).

This blog post is taken from a HealthStream Second Opinions Podcast that was recorded recently. To hear Vacca’s full discussion, click here.