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Posted 10.04.05

Nurses Use Professional 'Distance' to Combat Patient Harassment, Study Finds

Results Suggest More Informal Training Needed

COLUMBIA, MO -- In the health care system, nurses must provide everyday care to patients. Many of these caregivers deal with a common problem in the workplace: sexual harassment. While most of this harassment is from co-workers and physicians, a large portion comes from patients. A new study by a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher examined how these professionals handle these situations and the effect it has on job performance.

"These roles as caretakers normally require nurses to negotiate the continuum between closeness and distance with their patients both relationally and technically," said Debbie Dougherty, MU assistant communication professor, who conducted the study along with MU graduate students Tammy McGuire and Joshua Atkinson. "Many procedures such as bathing or putting in a catheter require this delicate balance."

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Dougherty and her team interviewed nurses, both male and female, in California, Colorado, Florida and Missouri. Their working environments ranged from nursing homes, to emergency rooms, to doctors' offices, while their experience ranged from a few months to 45 years.

When asked how they dealt with sexual harassment, many of the nurses spoke of putting patients in their place, either by laughing at them or by using jokes or "put-downs" to create emotional and relational space between them and their patients. Dougherty said nurses consistently responded to sexual harassment by attempting to create distance between themselves and their patients, and they spoke of how they would create more distance if faced with a similar situation again.

"Patients do not lie within the traditional organizational chart," Dougherty said. "They do not represent supervisors, peers or subordinates. This form of harassment is difficult to manage because standard methods of control, such as reprimands, demotions and firings, cannot be enacted on this group of people."

Dougherty noted that while the nurses repeatedly indicated that inappropriate sexual behavior from patients was an ongoing problem, only three participants said they received any training in how to manage this type of situation.

"Both managers and nursing schools should consider a more informal, storytelling-type of training where experienced nurses share instances of sexual harassment by patients, their response to this behavior, and how they wished they had responded," Dougherty said.

The study will be published in the Spring 2006 edition of Management Communication Quarterly.



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