A written policy—that's how doctors can create a harassment-free culture in their practices for patients and employees and also protect themselves, as small-business owners, against allegations.
If a practice has a policy in its employee manual, now may be a good time to review it. If a practice doesn't have a policy, it may be a good time to write one.
"A clear, well-written policy prohibiting any form of sexual harassment is a must, especially in this time of high-profile cases and allegations," says Doug Totten, O.D., chair of the AOA's Ethics and Values Committee. "It would be wise to review policies in a staff meeting or through staff communications to restate office policies and to explain the process if an incident would need to be reported."
Members of the AOA Ethics and Values Committee offer tips for a proper harassment policy.
The AOA Standards of Professional Conduct address the matter of relationships between doctors and staff.
"An optometrist should not engage in any acts of emotional abuse, physical abuse or sexual misconduct/exploitation related to the optometrist's position as a health care professional," the policy states. "Intimate relationships, even when consensual, between an optometric supervisor and a colleague, student, office trainee or staff member raise concerns because of inherent inequalities in the status and power of the individuals and are therefore inappropriate."
A written policy benefits a practice by clearly delineating standards of conduct, including how colleagues and patients should be treated, and shows that a practice takes these matters seriously.
But a policy also clearly defines what constitutes harassment and the process for employees to level allegations.
Other considerations for developing a policy:
- Develop a policy that requires a timely and thorough fact-finding investigation, plus lays out corrective action.
- Designate a person, and a backup, to confidentially handle complaints.
- Make sure the person making the complaint is protected from retribution.
- Review regularly with new and veteran employees.
At his own practice in Michigan, Dr. Totten says, their employee manual lays out its policies regarding harassment. The practice also does not tolerate harassment or inappropriate behavior from patients and also tries to avoid situations where staffers are alone with patients when possible.
"We, as the leaders in our organizations, must provide a good example of behavior in the office," Dr. Totten says. "If an incident is reported, protections should exist for the people involved. For example, our employee manual states, 'Making a report or complaint of sexual harassment will not affect an individual's future employment or work assignments.'"
Doctors of optometry also may want to review their liability insurance coverage, says Robert Moses, O.D., who practices in Indiana and is a member of the AOA Ethics and Values Committee.
Doctors' insurance policies cover property, business interruption and liability. The latter can protect them against lawsuits for personal injury and property damage. But, Dr. Moses asks, does it provide coverage for lawsuits that might arise out of a harassment claim?
"Doctors may want to check and make sure they're covered with their carrier," says Dr. Moses, noting that some additional coverage may need to be purchased for their protection.
AOAExcel's endorsed partner, Lockton Affinity, offers employment practices liability insurance, which helps employers respond to allegations of harassment, discrimination, improper hiring practices and related incidents. For additional information about this type of coverage, call Lockton's customer service line for AOA members at 888.343.1998.
The AOA will use the time to evaluate its collection efforts and create a registry for the future that is most useful to improving eye health and vision care. The AOA launched the registry in 2015.
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Under new rules for the 21st Century Cures Act, doctors of optometry will need to prepare for changes going into effect April 5. Doctors should check in with their health IT vendor in order to make sure they meet the new requirements.