NHS trusts have recorded more than 35,000 cases of rape and other incidents of sexual misbehaviour in the past five years, an investigation has found, as senior doctors called for “real cultural change” in the health service.
An investigation by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the Guardian found that a total of 35,520 sexual safety incidents were reported on NHS premises between 2017 and 2022.
The data was based on responses to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from 212 NHS trusts and 37 police forces in England.
At least a fifth of incidents involved rape, sexual assault, or kissing or touching that a person did not consent to, according to the investigation. Not all trusts provided a breakdown of the type of incidents recorded.
Other cases included sexual harassment, stalking, and abusive or degrading remarks.
The majority of incidents (58 per cent) involved patients abusing staff, the investigation found. Patients abusing other patients was the next most common type of incident (20 per cent).
Separately, police recorded nearly 12,000 alleged sexual crimes on NHS premises during the same time period.
These included 180 cases of rape of children under 16, with four children under 16 being gang raped.
However, fewer than one in 10 NHS trusts had a dedicated policy to deal with sexual assault and harassment, and are no longer obliged to report abuse of staff to a central database.
More than 4,000 NHS staff were accused of rape, sexual assault, harassment, stalking, or abusive remarks towards other staff or patients in 2017-22 - but only 576 have faced disciplinary action.
When complaints are made against colleagues, women claim that NHS trusts show a “reluctance to suspend perpetrators due to overall staff shortages,” says Deeba Syed, senior legal officer for Rights of Women, a helpline that provides support for women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed at work.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay said that the government has doubled the maximum sentence for those who are convicted of assaulting health workers and is working closely with NHS England to prevent and reduce violence against staff.
Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper told the BMJ and Guardian: “These revelations are truly sickening.
“We need an independent public inquiry now, to uncover the full extent of this scandal and put an end to it.”
The Hospital Doctors Union’s (HCSA) president, Naru Narayanan, said: “We need a formal independent inquiry into the issue to uncover the truth and hold policy makers and employers to account. We need real cultural change.”
Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Steve Barclay, said: “Violence or misconduct of any kind is unacceptable and has no place in the NHS. We have doubled the maximum sentence for those who are convicted of assaulting emergency workers, including frontline health workers like doctors and nurses.
“NHS leaders have a statutory duty of care to look after their staff and patients and prevent harassment, abuse or violence in the workplace. I expect employers to be proactive in ensuring staff and patients are fully supported, their concerns listened to and acted on with appropriate action taken where necessary.
“We are also working closely with NHS England as it takes action to prevent and reduce violence against staff, including through body-worn camera trials and a national violence prevention hub to ensure NHS staff can work in a safe environment.”