Overall, 47.7 percent reported having been targets of gender-based harassment, and 36.9 percent reported having been sexually harassed, researchers say in Monday's issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
The 1993 through 1994 nationwide survey did not ask women to specify what behavior they thought constituted harassment, only whether they believed it had occurred.
Younger physicians reported higher rates of sexual harassment than older ones, and medical schools were the most common site, said researchers led by Dr. Erica Frank of Emory University in Atlanta.
"Some may believe that problems of harassment will disappear in time, that they are simply a function of older, sexist physicians still being in practice," the researchers said.
But the data suggest a more complicated picture, they said.
While younger women may be more sensitive to harassment than their older colleagues, the survey suggests that harassment may be worsening in schools and "we may be continuing to train physicians in an environment where harassment is common," they said.
"Present thought characterizes sexual harassment as primarily a manifestation of power, rather than sexual attraction. The profession of medicine, particularly in academic settings, may be especially prone to harassment because of the importance of hierarchy," the researchers said.
That may explain why women in surgery and emergency medicine reported a higher prevalence of harassment, since those fields may especially value hierarchy and authority, the researchers said.
A spokeswoman for medical schools praised the report.
"This is the first study of the harassment of women physicians in a large national sample," said Janet Bickel, vice president for institutional planning and development at the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington. "This shows it's still an issue."
One remedy would be a greater willingness by medical school deans to take strong action against faculty harassment of students, she said.
While the survey included no information on the source of the harassment, previous research has revealed patients to be high on the list of offenders, Ms. Bickel said. Medical schools could train women to deal with patients who try to harass them, she said.
"It's learning how to redirect the conversation or the exam in such a way that it doesn't insult the patient but re-establishes [the doctor's authority] in the patient-physician relationship," she said.
Some women tend to be better at it than others, but "it's a skill that can be taught," she said.
The survey did not define the difference between "ender-based" and "sexual" harassment, but tests among focus groups indicated that gender-based harassment generally related to being female in a traditionally male environment, without having a sexual or physical component.
During medical school, 31 percent of women reported experiencing gender-based harassment and 20 percent sexual harassment. During later internship, residency, or fellowship, the rates were 29 percent and 19 percent, respectively. Rates in practice were 25 percent and 19 percent.
The survey was based on responses from 4,501 women aged 30 to 70, including part-time, practicing and retired doctors from medical school classes that graduated in each of the years from 1950 through 1989.
By Brenda C. Coleman ©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed