Nov. 9, 2018

Student takes initiative to help raise awareness in medicine about #Metoo movement

Janine Farrell works with campus leaders to improve awareness and training; panel discussion set for Nov. 13
“When we experience harassment in our place of work or learning, it disrupts our ability to do good work from there on in. The impact is immeasurable and unacceptable," says medical student Janine Farrell.

Medical Student Janine Farrell.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

  • Above: “When we experience harassment in our place of work or learning, it disrupts our ability to do good work from there on in. The impact is immeasurable and unacceptable," says medical student Janine Farrell.

The #Metoo movement started an international discussion on the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace. While it originated in the entertainment industry, the culture around the abuse of power was soon making waves in every industry. Janine Farrell, a University of Calgary medical student, was paying attention.  

Farrell was in her 30s and already had a successful career as a health equity researcher when she decided to go back to school and pursue a medical degree in 2016. She had friends already working in the medical professions across the country and the #metoo movement had them talking about sexism, harassment and sexual violence. 

Farrell realized that the medical profession needed a shakeup — a cultural shift.

“I wanted people to hear that sexual harassment and assault is happening in medical education settings, and medical practice, so if it happens to them, they will know it is unacceptable, or if it happens to their colleagues, they will believe them,” says Farrell, currently a third-year medical student at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Farrell approached the Undergraduate Medical Education office with an idea, and together they incorporated consent training and bystander training in orientation for medical students. These programs educate students on the practice of ensuring ongoing voluntary agreement between people engaged in any sort of sexual activity, as well as how to react as a bystander when witnessing sexual harassment or assault. Both programs are applicable to acts like sexual intercourse, kissing and even taking explicit photos. 

The program evolved the second year it was offered and UCalgary’s sexual violence support advocate presented on sexual harassment and assault. Farrell was also a presenter and talked about research on sexual harassment and assault experienced by medical students and trainees in the medical setting — usually from their teachers, colleagues, and sometimes from their patients.

“There was already a program in place for first-year students on main campus. However, medical students learn at a different campus, and it’s important we receive this training early in our careers,” she says.

UCalgary’s Undergraduate Medical Education program is looking forward to keeping the momentum going. “A recent questionnaire completed by Canadian medical graduates across the country found that some have experienced unwanted sexual advances and others have been subject to offensive, sexist remarks and names. This is not acceptable,” says Dr. Sylvain Coderre, associate dean, Undergraduate Medical Education. “Initiatives such as Janine’s are important. We look forward to continuing what Janine has started for years to come, and in fact to increase interventions in this area.”

Reaction from peers has been positive, encouraging

Since the med school has trialled various sessions to get at this issue, Farrell has received positive feedback from her peers. “People were telling me they want even more training,” she says. “After the most recent session some students contacted me privately to say they felt safer knowing their colleagues had sat through this session. I was heartened by the men who spoke up during the session to encourage their peers to commit to learning beyond just our talk by following social media accounts that demonstrate how harassment and sexism negatively impact women in subtle, everyday ways.

“As far as I know the University of Calgary is the only university offering this type of training to medical students. They are truly leading the pack and should be proud.”

Farrell says the training is something she hopes medical students take with them as they move into the medical profession: “We are well-intentioned people, and as we move forward in our careers, we will be in positions of trust and power. We need to be aware of how that power impacts others — especially when that kind of power creates the ideal conditions for harassment and abuse.”

She hopes the training also gets her peers to think about the sexual harassment they have experienced or been witness to, which may have been minimized or not taken seriously in the past. “When we experience harassment in our place of work or learning, it disrupts our ability to do good work from there on in. The impact is immeasurable and unacceptable.”

How to advocate on campus: forge ahead

Farrell says students should take the initiative to inspire change on campus. She says she has met with everyone on campus who would listen to her. “Students have a lot of power, more power then they think they have.” 

Farrell goes on to say there can be a sense of fear when advocating for change in professional programs.

“It is tempting to stay quiet because of the hierarchy of medicine, and because we are yet to apply for and secure our residency spots, students often worry about getting a bit of a reputation for being a disruptor,” but her advice is to forge ahead. “People take what students say seriously. There is buy-in from administrators. They do care about our experiences and want to hear what it is we need to thrive in this environment.”

Panel on campus

Farrell will graduate from medical school in spring 2019 and wants to enter a family medicine residency. Her last few months of school are busy with clerkship rotations in the hospital, and applying for residency programs, but that hasn’t stopped her work on the #metoo movement.

After hearing Manitoba senator Marilou McPhedran speak about the #MeToo movement in medicine on the CBC program White Coat, Black Art, Farrell reached out to the senator to invite her to campus.

McPhedran accepted, and will be the keynote speaker at Sexual Harassment, Bullying and the Culture of Medicine, an event being held Nov. 13 at Foothills campus. The event, hosted by the Cumming School of Medicine, will also have panel presentations featuring numerous health professionals, including UCalgary’s Calgary’s sexual violence support advocate Carla Bertsch. The session is open to those involved in providing health care and to the UCalgary community.