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Young nurses left red-faced over male patients’ sensuality

22 March 2022 - 06:00
A new SA study says sexual insinuation by male patients often leaves young health professionals embarrassed. File photo.
A new SA study says sexual insinuation by male patients often leaves young health professionals embarrassed. File photo.
Image: 123RF/Sergey Serdyuk

More than two decades after she started her job as a nurse, Cape Town mother Charlotte vividly remembers the day a patient grabbed her buttocks during her first year of training at an Eastern Cape regional hospital.

“I haven’t forgotten the incident because it left me quite traumatised. It happened randomly. I was administering a drip when a male patient grabbed my buttocks. He had this naughty look on his face. I was so frightened but angry at the same time. I also felt helpless as there is this unwritten rule that the ‘patient is always right’.”

“I had been sexually harassed by my patient, and despite my anger I could not act out. I had to calm myself and gently told him another nurse would take over from me as I didn’t appreciate his behaviour. Apart from walking away I couldn’t do more and there were no consequences for the patient. As a nurse you are told to be professional at all times.”

New research suggests her experience might not be unique.

The University of SA (Unisa) study found student nurses who offered intimate care to patients such as oral care, bathing, dressing and changing urinary catheters often experienced discomfort and sometimes refusal from older female patients who considered them too young to treat them.

However, when it came to male patients it was a different form of discomfort. Sexual insinuation from these patients often left the young health professionals embarrassed. While they struggled with socio-cultural values that considered touching a man’s body as private and unspoken of, unwelcome sexual advances that were verbal, psychological and visual didn’t make their professional life easier.

Existing research showed sexual harassment by male patients was prevalent with about 31% of it physical and 41% psychological. Some study participants reported being groped by patients on their breasts under the disguise they needed support.

Some men had “naughty” smiles while others insisted on being bathed by nurses even though they could do it themselves.

Often these experiences left nurses embarrassed and feeling awkward around their male patients. For nursing students, sexual harassment might lead to deterioration in physical and mental health. Study participants said the most difficult part of their job was caring for a patient who had an erection during intimate nursing care.

The young nurses said despite their discomfort there was often very little support from senior nursing and teaching staff.

One participant said “I was busy helping a patient. The patient became so silly. He touched my breast. I did not know what to do. I left him and told the sister-in-charge. She told me to act professionally, and life had to go on.

Most times these experiences were discussed in a joking manner.

“We discuss it in class, we joke about it. The only advice we have been given is to call someone else in the ward,” said another participant.

“They (nurse educators) teach us. At the end of the day, you are alone with the patient and uncomfortable. They teach us the basics according to the curriculum.  Our facilitators tell us it will be much better as years pass, and it’s part of nursing. They don’t know what to say to us. We are burdened with this care,” said another nurse.

The sensitive nature of intimate care made it difficult for some young nurses to freely share their experiences with their lecturers and fellow students.

“I can’t share in class that I can’t handle this intimate care for fear of becoming a laughing stock. If you share with your lecturer, it seems as if you are weak and don’t have the abilities to be a nurse. I no longer talk about it ,” said another.

Charlotte said while many nurses carried on with their lives after these traumatic events, sexual harassment of nurses should be taken more seriously.

“As far as I know there are not guidelines for patients on how they should behave towards nurses. With so much seriousness about sexual harassment in the workplace, I think it’s time for nurses to be protected more from such patients.”

Writing in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Health Sciences, researcher Simangele Shakwane said female nursing students should be prepared to provide intimate nursing care, and more research should be done “to explore the influence of culture in intimate care provision and examine sexual harassment and reporting systems for nursing students”.

“Intimate care addresses the basic physical and psychological needs of a patient. The participants experienced rejection because of their youthfulness, inexperience and physical and psychological sexual advances when executing this care. Lack of support and fear of mentioning intimate care conflicts may lead to discontinuity in quality patient care,” Shakwane said.

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