woman holding a paper that says me too on it

Physical Therapists and the Rising Cases of Sexual Harassment

A new study in the Nov. 1, 2017 journal Physical Therapy shows that sexual harassment of physical therapists by patients is widespread and common.

More than 80 percent of physical therapists report that patients are touching them inappropriately. Here's what a new study says.


A study conducted by researchers led by Jill Boissonnault, PT, PhD at George Washington University, Washington, DC, and Ziadee Cambier, PT, MSPT, DPT at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, WA, found that 84 percent of 849 physical therapy professionals and students surveyed had experienced inappropriate patient sexual behavior (IPSB) during their careers and 47 percent had experienced IPSB in the previous 12 months. The study defined IPSB as instances in which a patient engages in any of a range of behaviors, "from leering and sexual remarks to deliberate touch, indecent exposure, and sexual assault."

Female PTs Have Twice The Risk

While the harassment affected both male and female physical therapists, Dr. Boissonnault told CNN Money that female therapists are more than twice as likely to be targets of IPSB than male therapists, and the risk is higher among female therapists working with male patients. The study, described as the largest of its kind to focus on IPSB among PTs, PTAs, and students, showed little difference from similar studies done in the 1990s, including a 1997 Physical Therapy study of only PTs that found career prevalence of IPSB ranged between 81 percent and 86 percent. The authors of that study called for addressing the problem in physical therapy training programs.

Training Alone Can’t Prevent IPSB.

Club Staffing asked Dr. Cambier if more training had been added to PT programs since 1997, and if so, why was there so little change in incidence over the past 20 years. “This kind of behavior is pervasive throughout our society and it is not the target of the behavior that has the control to stop the behavior, it is the perpetrator,” Dr. Cambier told Club Staffing. “So this is pervasive and not much has changed in our culture.”

“Training isn't preventative. Training can allow a therapist to be better prepared in the moment,” she added, “and there are indications that if a therapist who experiences inappropriate patient sexual behavior feels they handled it well and had a sense of control, that it (training) can lessen some of the psychological impact on the therapist, and I think it can lead to a better resolution of the situation for both the therapist and the patient, but I don't think it prevents it from happening.”

Training Can Help Lessen Impact

That said, Dr. Cambier thinks the physical therapy profession is not doing enough in terms of training and that there are things the industry can do that can be preventative in the workplace, including:

  • Using behavioral contracts
  • Having a second staff member in the room
  • Knowing when to issue warning letters
  • Knowing when and how to transfer patients or terminate care

“Having behavioral contracts was the most successful strategy on our survey,” she said, “but it is rarely used. We actually do have an extensive policy at Swedish covering use of these for violent and threatening patients. The policy states that it covers any verbal or physical harassment, so it should apply to IPSB as well, although that is not stated explicitly.

More Work Needed

Dr. Cambier added that the policy only covers inpatients, so more work needs to be done to institute such policies to explicitly include covering allied health professionals who often treat patients in the outpatient setting as well. She is hopeful that the current awareness of sexual harassment might cause therapists to take their concerns to management or HR and ask for a policy. “It is not just us, it is nurses, doctors, and people throughout healthcare.”

CONSIDER your career options with physical therapy jobs from Club Staffing. We provide education, information, and support for the most practice opportunities of any staffing organization on the web.

Resources: The American Physical Therapy Association, (APTA) has taken a strong position on sexual harassment and provides a webpage to help members recognize harassment and understand their rights.

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