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Sex assault made me quit surgical training, says doctor

Dr Becky Cox in her medical scrubs
Dr Becky Cox says she experienced sexual harassment and assault while training to be a surgeon

Sexual assault and harassment forced a doctor to quit her surgical training, she has said.

Dr Becky Cox said she was left with depression and post traumatic stress disorder after her training in Cardiff and England and felt "like a failure" for not putting up with behaviour by senior staff.

There were 379 allegations of sexual misconduct recorded by Welsh NHS health boards and trusts between January 2020 and December 2023.

The Welsh government and NHS Wales said harassment and sexual violence was "abhorrent and has no place in our NHS".

Incidents have been reported on some of the most vulnerable wards, including a children’s hospital and multiple rape allegations on mental health wards.

They include any allegations made against patients and visitors, as well as staff.

Dr Cox was determined to be a surgeon after finishing medical school and won Welsh surgeons junior gold medal prize for research in her first year.

Dr Becky Cox and Dr Chelcie Jewitt outside 10 Downing Street
Dr Chelcie Jewitt and Dr Becky Cox took a report on sexual assault in the NHS to 10 Downing Street

Despite this promising start, she quit amid "lots of inappropriate verbal comments, name-calling, being harassed and seniors propositioning themselves on to me" and now works as a GP in Oxford.

She said senior staff asked her on dates and left her gifts and there was a "sheer volume of these behaviours that kept on happening," she told Wales Live.

"I remember feeling incredibly vulnerable being a medical student on a ward with a senior doctor who was behaving like that," she added.

"Unfortunately the behaviour did tip into sexual assault and I found it was a really difficult time."

Dr Cox subsequently quit her surgical training due to the affect it had on her mental health but was left feeling "really weak, asking myself why I wasn’t strong enough to keep going".

In September, a major analysis of NHS staff reported female surgeons being sexually harassed, assaulted and, in some cases raped by colleagues.

Dr Cox and Dr Chelcie Jewitt have now founded Surviving in Scrubs to amplify voices of sexual misconduct within the NHS to create change.

BBC Wales Live submitted Freedom of Information (FoI) requests all of Wales' health boards and trusts.

Health boards Cardiff and Vale, Aneurin Bevan, Cwm Taf Morgannwg and Powys responded, along with Public Health Wales and the Welsh Ambulance Trust.

Over the four-year period where the BBC was able to identify categories of people, 93% of allegations involved staff being targeted.

There were three reported rapes on mental health wards at Aneurin Bevan and one incident of sexual misconduct reported at Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospital.

Dr Hilary Williams, vice-president of the Wales Royal College of  Physicians
Dr Hilary Williams called the sexual misconduct allegation figures "horrifying"

Data from the Welsh Ambulance trust showed workers were most vulnerable while responding to medical emergencies in patients' homes.

Previously, the only data released on the number of sexual misconduct incidents on hospital grounds reported in Wales has been from the police.

An FoI submitted by the Women's Rights Network discovered an alleged 152 sexual assaults and 26 rapes on hospital grounds between January 2019 and October 2022.

In September, four top female doctors wrote an open letter describing misogyny, bullying, and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Dr Hilary Williams, vice-president for Wales' Royal College of Physicians, and Dr Rowena Christmas, chairwoman of Wales' Royal College of GPs, were among the signatories.

They described the revelations in this FoI as "absolutely shocking" and "horrifying" and agreed they will not paint the full picture as staff are often reluctant to report colleagues.

Dr Christmas remembers incidents of misogyny where she felt she could not speak up and still "caries the guilt of that".

She added: "We're losing doctors faster than we're recruiting them to become medical students and you can't help think this has something to do with that."

Dr Williams added: said "I think you'd find it hard to find a female doctor - and it does happen to males as well - that has not had some experiences over their lifetime career.

"If I thought medical students today couldn't take the careers of their choice because of misogyny, that is heartbreakingly bad."

Both doctors want to see better reporting mechanisms so staff can feel confident about coming forward with complaints.

The Welsh government and NHS said in a statement: "We encourage the NHS to support criminal proceedings against anyone who assaults staff, visitors or patients.

"We want anyone who has concerns or who has experienced harassment or sexual violence to know that they will be listened to.

"We have taken measures to make that easier, including the Speaking up Safely framework for NHS Wales and sexual safety policies."