Medical resident fighting for career back after losing her job due to harassment complaint

Ana Safavi says she lost everything after she reported she had been sexually harassed by a supervising doctor. Now she is going before the Human Rights Commission hoping to get her residency back so she can finally practice medicine.

An Ontario medical resident says she was sexually harassed by a doctor overseeing her residency and lost everything for speaking up. Her life has been on hold ever since, and she has been fighting for the last six years to get her career back. In April, she’s taking her case to the province’s human rights tribunal.

“I can’t see myself doing something else with my life, I’ve always wanted to be an oncologist,” says Ana Safavi.

Safavi was a resident at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) in 2018.

“I could really see myself practicing there for the rest of my life. I really liked it, and there’s a real need for doctors in the northern areas.”

Just over halfway through her three-year residency, Safavi alleged a supervising doctor sexually harassed her.

In the first instance, she claims she was at a work party with her fiancé.

“He told my then-fiancé to ‘take me upstairs and have sex with me in the house.’ And it just kind of was out of the blue …. He said, ‘I bet she’d like it. I hear she’s a freak between the sheets.'”

“I think it was more humiliating because it wasn’t even said to me. It was like I was a piece of furniture,” explained Safavi.

Savafi’s former fiancé swore an affidavit backing up her claim. Safavi says the doctor had powerful connections at NOSM, she was afraid so she didn’t name him when she filed a complaint with the vice dean.

“She suspended me,” said Safavi. “She said NOSM had to know I was safe, that I couldn’t return until I was safe.”

Eventually, NOSM launched an investigation, and Safavi revealed the name of her alleged harasser. More than a year later, the investigator concluded there was no wrongdoing and Safavi was not a “credible or reliable witness.”

Safavi was allowed to go back to her residency but refused to return until NOSM put measures in place to ensure there would be no retaliation. But she said they couldn’t agree, and NOSM ended her residency.

“I wasn’t kicked out for having done something wrong, they just said we can’t hold your spot because we can’t agree to a safety plan,” said Safavi. “[It meant the] end of my career and they knew that.”

In Canada, if a resident is dismissed from a residency, they can’t apply to go elsewhere.

Safavi’s lawyer, Kathryn Marshall, alleges the entire system was working against her client.

“When you have physicians who are responsible for young residents and training them, they are viewed like gods,” said Marshall, “The system protects those people.”

Behind the scenes, NOSM had had a history of harassment and intimidation. CityNews obtained a letter sent from the chief resident to NOSM residents in 2016. It states harassment and intimidation “is noted to be an ongoing issue for the last two years,” and that “ultimately this is likely going to be the biggest issue when it comes to accreditation.”

That year, NOSM was in danger of losing its accreditation from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons to teach psychiatry and internal medicine, which was Safavi’s program. This was taking place the same year Safavi was entering NOSM’s residency program.

Safavi is not the only resident who has raised the issue of sexual harassment in Canada.

In 2018, around the time she said she was being harassed, the Canadian Medical Association Journal released a national survey of Resident Doctors of Canada. 

It found “pervasive abuse” with more than one in 10 respondents saying they were sexually harassed or touched inappropriately.

In just over half the cases, residents said staff physicians were the harassers. It also found nearly nine of 10 trainees did not use their institutions’ resources to address harassment and intimidation, and among those who did, over half felt the resources were inadequate.

“Resident students do not have any protections and there is this culture of fear,” said Marshall. “This is what the case highlights, they have to do everything their supervisor tells them to do, they don’t have recourse because they need those assessments.”

In his response to the allegations before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, the doctor denied any wrongdoing.

“It is to my horror that I have been falsely targetted,” said the doctor. “It is pure fantasy on the part of Dr. Safavi.”

The doctor’s statement also stated Savafi either met or exceeded expectations in her evaluation. The doctor also told the tribunal he voluntarily resigned from the faculty a year after the allegations, to pursue research opportunities.

NOSM declined to comment about Safavi’s case before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario but did tell CityNews it is fully accredited.

Safavi is suing the doctor for $25,000 in damages, but what she said she really wants is for the Human Rights Tribunal to reinstate her, so she can finish her residency and finally practice medicine.

The tribunal will have to determine if there was an abuse of power by the doctor and whether Safavi lost her residency — and therefore her future as a doctor — because she came forward.

Of coming forward, Safavi said, “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else, but looking back, I don’t know what else I could have done.”

With files from Jessica Bruno

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