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'Culture of fear' and 'ongoing sexual harassment' prompt changes at UBC ophthalmology program

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A section of the University of British Columbia’s school of medicine has made sweeping changes following a damning report outlining bullying and sexual harassment of student eye doctors, CTV News has learned.

Whistleblowers in UBC’s ophthalmology program reached out last year, alleging the university and departmental leaders had brushed aside complaints by students and trainees, which included sexual touching and comments, for years.

CTV News has now obtained a written report and slide presentation with conclusions of an “environmental scan” carried out by a third-party assessor, which UBC acknowledges found “unacceptable” behaviour and led to students being reassigned to “safe learning environments” as a result.

“The program has persistent issues of unprofessional conduct and harassment: sexual harassment, racial, and bullying and harassment” wrote lawyer Renee Miller, in the report dated May 20, 2022.

A heavily-redacted segment of the document references interviewees seeing the institutions “as having failed the department, the learning environment and themselves” while another group “perceive the program, department, FOM and the institutions as having an unwillingness to address issues of harassment and unprofessionalism.”

Miller interviewed 60 students, instructors, administrators and other staff including nurses in the program for her report and presentation, finding “the majority of learners and many of the staff I interviewed are of the opinion that the learning environment is not safe” and some students even experienced “retribution” for raising concerns.

DISTURBING DETAILS IN REPORT 

The allegations made by the students and residents who contacted CTV News were substantiated by Miller’s report, which went into considerable detail, with her PowerPoint presentation outlining a “culture of fear.”

She wrote that as of the presentation of her report in spring of 2022, “sexual harassment continues within the clinical departments…includes inappropriate touching learners’ buttocks with hands and inadvertently…with staff genital areas.”

A screenshot of lawyer Renee Miller's presentation of an "environmental scan" of UBC's ophthalmology programInappropriate comments included whether residents were hot, referring to women as sex workers, discussing the size of staff genitals, and referencing sexual practices and vaginal lubrication. One doctor was described as consistently standing so close to students performing surgeries, that any movement meant they “inadvertently brushed or bumped against this doctor’s genital area.”

Bullying behaviour included calling students “stupid” in front of their peers and clinical staff, physician-instructors “laughing at learner mistakes” and other behaviour that left students feeling “degraded and embarrassed” in addition to cursing and abusive language.

The same staff were identified as “demonstrating both overtly racist and sexist comments and behaviours” in an overall “atmosphere tolerant of racially discriminatory jokes”

Miller also found that the program “is not currently fulfilling its full mandate” with some senior residents finishing training “without having experience or exposure to, at all or with sufficiency, all the minimums” required by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

Overall, she found that 20 per cent of the teaching staff were “identified as being excellent and supportive of learning” but that the 20 per cent who were viewed negatively were “very influential…persistently creating a negative learning environment, creating anxiety, apprehension, disappointment, frustration, fear, regret.”

A screenshot of lawyer Renee Miller's presentation of an "environmental scan" of UBC's ophthalmology program

UBC RESPONDS TO REPORT 

After CTV News filed a freedom of information request for Miller’s findings, the department at first asked for clarification to process the application, despite very specific wording. Then, the school exceeded the 30-day response window mandated under legislation, insisting they were busy with multiple requests and apologizing for the delay.

Despite multiple requests to speak with anyone representing UBC, the ophthalmology program or the school of medicine, the communications department refused and would only send an email statement jointly attributed to Dr. Ravi Sidhu, associate dean of the surgical department, and Dr Neeru Gupta, the new head of the ophthalmology department.

“The department is committed to a healthy learning environment and educational relationships,” they wrote. “We understand the profound seriousness of the concerns raised, and what we heard was unacceptable. We acknowledge that the learning environment was seriously and negatively impacting our trainees.”

They then cited privacy concerns due to human resources considerations, but insisted that trainees were reassigned “as needed,” faculty were put through “mandatory training sessions,” and new procedures are now in place to allow students to report issues, among other measures.

The program only recently had full accreditation for its eye program restored after being at risk of losing the ability to train new surgeons and specialist doctors.

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