Posted on March 1, 2021 at 10:59 PM
by Alyssa Burgart
Last night, my phone exploded with texts from colleagues when a former anesthesiology resident at Oregon Health Sciences University, the famous “Tik Tok Doc” was named in a $45 million sexual assault complaint. In addition to the resident Dr. Jason L. Campbell, the suit names OHSU, a prominent anti-harassment advocate, residency program directors, leadership in the departments of Anesthesiology and Emergency medicine, and others in power. The 39-page suit alleges a massive institutional failure and highlights the features in a system where harassment thrives and flourishes. Sexual misconduct is inherently unethical, yet these behaviors pervade our profession, alter career trajectories, and prevent us from being our best selves or providing quality care to others. With sexual harassment and assault permeating medical education and practice, this story could have unfolded at almost any American hospital.
At the center of the suit are the victims: a Portland Veterans Affairs Hospital social worker and another woman who feared retaliation from OHSU. According to the filing, the primary victim was shamed and blamed by the university’s investigator. Her assault was minimized and referred to as “a hug from behind,” denying the reality of her experience at the hands of Dr. Campbell. Her safety was not protected. The survivor had previously reported a series of sexual assault and harassment incidents against the previous chair of Emergency Medicine, Dr. Oscar John Ma. The court documents claim OHSU poorly addressed these accusations too. What will it take to get justice for this brave person who came forward, to protect herself and others? The university offered to pay $6000 for the survivor’s therapy but failed to do so because the university’s sexual misconduct fund was out of money. I wonder how many sexual misconduct cases have occurred that the account apparently ran dry.
I felt nauseated and vulnerable reading the survivor’s account, recalling my own experiences of harassment in various workplaces. At 21, while working in a laboratory alone with an older co-worker, I was harassed and narrowly avoided assault. I wasn’t actively discouraged from reporting but was led to believe handling the incident myself was preferable. My only request was that we never again be alone together in the lab. Just days later, the plan had already failed. I found myself alone with him again, scared, anxious, and trying to steady my shaking hand enough to pipette delicate samples. In the years since I’ve been groped by patients and had my sexuality commented upon by physicians in authority. Compared to many women and LGBTQ people, I have been incredibly lucky it was not worse.
I followed Dr. Jason Campbell on Twitter early in his residency, excited to see a young, Black resident rising in my specialty, which is overwhelmingly white. He became famous as the “Tik Tok Doc” for providing lighthearted dance videos during the pandemic and subsequently gained a massive social media following. He was featured in President Biden’s virtual inauguration parade. Yet, this man, while claiming to be a good guy, a #HeForShe who advocated for women in healthcare, was perpetrating violence on his coworkers.
Amid the sexual assault and harassment investigation, Dr. Campbell quietly transferred residency training programs, leaving OHSU for his home state Florida. The common practice of allowing or encouraging a perpetrator to relocate, known as “passing the trash,” allows unwitting communities to place the perpetrator in a position to abuse again. How much did his new residency know before the court documents were released? It is unclear how future medical boards will view Dr. Campbell’s behavior, given the history medical boards have of allowing physicians with similar complaints to continue to practice. In the larger context of medical practice, when we can’t perform this most basic form of self-regulation, do we deserve to self-regulate at all?
In addition to the horror of Dr. Campbell’s behavior, the inclusion of an anti-harassment advocate and Times Up Healthcare founder Dr. Esther Choo has left me shaken. I held up Dr. Choo on a pedestal for her work promoting gender equity. Her persona as a no-nonsense emergency physician on a mission to improve medical culture inspired me, in part, to write about the moral imperative to effectively address sexual assault by physicians. In 2018, Dr. Choo and colleagues called for a “complete transformation in how we conceive of, approach, and prioritize” sexual harassment in academic medicine. Unfortunately, that transformation remains aspirational, at best.
The story of OHSU and Dr. Choo is deeply troubling: even the most outspoken anti-harassment advocate struggled to encourage reporting of an egregious sexual assault. Evidence presented in the case suggests Dr. Choo discouraged the victim from reporting because reporting wasn’t worth the personal cost. Having seen colleagues gas-lit and slut-shamed, their experiences swept under the rug, such a response from someone else wouldn’t surprise me. But imagining this message from Dr. Choo hurts. It’s not lost on me that she has risen through the ranks in a culture that allowed Dr. Campbell, Dr. Ma, and countless other harassers to thrive.
In light of the accusations, some will likely call for the outright cancellation of Dr. Choo and even Times Up Healthcare. I argue we need to do something harder: hold each other accountable. This difficult path requires us to define accountability and potential reconciliation. In addition to the questions we must ask of Dr. Choo, we also have questions we must ask ourselves. Have we placed too much responsibility on a small cadre of women and allies? Was it reasonable to expect someone navigating her way through the very same toxic culture she’s trying to change to do so without room for a mistake? Did we really think she would personally upend this toxic culture in the course of a few short years? If Dr. Choo can’t move the needle on institutional culture and may even remain so embedded as even to be part of the problem, is there hope for the rest of us? When the legal intricacies allow for it, I hope some forthcoming statement will help make sense of this aspect of the case.
The inclusion of Dr. Choo and Times Up Healthcare in the suit is reverberating across social media, though not as loudly as I would have expected. I see people supporting the survivor and decrying the perpetrator, but Times Up Healthcare and its founder’s role lies in some liminal space that’s not as easy to address. I worry about the future impact this will have on the anti-harassment movement. We risk responding in a way that tears down advocates for mistakes while countless primary abusers remain unaddressed. How do we avoid throwing out the critical strides of the movement in this context? How much damage has this done to the #HeForShe movement – where men proudly stand up for women in the workplace? What does it mean when some of these supposed allies turn out to be charlatans? Social media campaigns have spread the message far and wide that ethical change needs to come, but it’s obvious we still aren’t doing enough to protect each other or build organizations that are safe for patients and staff.
Many of us, including myself, experience this story through the lens of our own historical or current victimization. This can lead us to be unaware of our complicit participation in deeply embedded systems of injustice. Now, more than ever, we must believe victims and survivors of sexual assault and harassment. We must demand justice for the people who risk their own careers and safety to bring these horrific conditions to light. We must continuously examine ourselves and our organizations to ensure accountability. We must rise to achieve the aspirational, transformational change to become a profession where everyone, regardless of their gender, race, or sexual orientation feels safe to do their best work. Every accusation must be handled with the seriousness and delicacy it deserves. Organizations must avoid relying on punishing or championing individuals above systemic progress. The safety of patients and us depends on it.
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