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Most physical therapists have been harassed, report says

A recent survey of physical therapists says more than 80 percent of those surveyed have experienced sexual harassment. Nearly half of the survey participants said they have experienced sexual harassment in the past year.

The survey's authors say those statistics essentially are unchanged since the 1990s.

The findings were reported in a medical journal called Physical Therapy. “The numbers stand for themselves, and it’s quite alarming,” said lead author Jill Boissonnault of the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C.

The researchers' objective was to determine career and 12-month exposure to inappropriate patient sexual behavior toward physical therapists, physical therapist assistants and physical therapy students. The survey also wanted to identify risk factors for sexual harassment. Here are findings from the report:

  • Health care professionals have 16 times greater risk for non-fatal violence at work than other fields.
  • Inappropriate patient sexual behavior was most common between a female therapist and male patient.
  • Treating mostly male patients increased the odds of harassment by almost 400 percent, and treating an equal mix of patients doubled the odds, as compared to those who mainly treated female patients. 
  • Factors that increased the risk of experiencing sexual harassment included working frequently with patients with brain "impairments," and having less than five years of experience as a physical therapist.
  • Several physical therapists reported they received a lack of support from their employers. One survey respondent said, "“I was told that when patients were inappropriate with me, it was ‘part of the job.' I did not have support from management to address the situation or to take further steps.”

Professional reaction to the study included a suggestion that future studies examine organizations' policies and practices regarding inappropriate patient sexual behavior.

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