Endemic unprofessional behaviour in health care: the mandate for a change in approach

Johanna Westbrook, Neroli Sunderland, Victoria Atkinson, Catherine Jones and Jeffrey Braithwaite
Med J Aust 2018; 209 (9): . || doi: 10.5694/mja17.01261
Published online: 5 November 2018

Pervasive bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment are increasingly hard to ignore, yet evidence of effective interventions is lacking

Unprofessional behaviour is sufficiently widespread in the Australian health care system that it could be considered endemic. The 2016 survey of the Victorian Public Sector Commission found that 25% of staff in health agencies experienced bullying,1 and in a 2014 survey of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, 40% of nurses reported bullying or harassment in the previous 12 months.2 In 2015, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons surveyed 3516 surgical Fellows, trainees and international medical graduates and found that 49% had been subjected to discrimination, bullying, harassment or sexual harassment.3 The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine released in 2017 its survey results: 34% of respondents had experienced bullying, 21.7% discrimination, 16.1% harassment and 6.2% sexual harassment.4 Thus, unsurprisingly, the 2016 Senate inquiry into the medical complaints process concluded that bullying, discrimination and harassment levels remain disconcertingly high despite the apparent “zero tolerance” approach reported by medical administrators and colleges.5

  • Johanna Westbrook1
  • Neroli Sunderland1
  • Victoria Atkinson2
  • Catherine Jones2
  • Jeffrey Braithwaite1

  • 1 Australian Institute of Health Innovation, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW
  • 2 St Vincent's Health Australia, Melbourne, VIC



The authors are recipients of a National Health and Medical Research Council Partnership Project Grant (1134459) for this work.

Competing interests:

Victoria Atkinson and Catherine Jones are employees of St Vincent’s Health Australia.


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