Much like sexual misconduct in trusted institutions like the Catholic Church, sexual misconduct by doctors occurs more frequently than many would imagine. The Atlanta Journal Constitution and some of her sister publications recently ran exposés of doctors accused of sexual misconduct. The investigative reporters obtained and analyzed more than 100,000 disciplinary documents and other records from across the country to find cases that may have involved sexual misconduct. Then reporters identified more than 3,100 doctors who were publicly disciplined since Jan. 1, 1999 after being accused of sexual infractions. More than 2,400 were sanctioned for violations that clearly involved patients. The rest were disciplined for sexual harassment of employees or for crimes such as child pornography, public indecency or sexual assault. Yet many, if not most, cases of physician sexual misconduct remain hidden. The AJC investigation discovered that state boards and hospitals handle some cases secretly. In other cases, medical boards remove once-public orders from their websites or issue documents that cloak sexual misconduct in vague language.
The investigation reached some other startling conclusions. Most notably, the investigation found a broken system which forgives sexually abusive doctors in every state. The nation’s largest medical society — the American Medical Association (AMA) — purports to have zero tolerance for doctors who sexually abuse patients. But in practice the AMA’s policy is not always followed. For instance, the AMA is not in favor of the automatic revocation of the medical license of every doctor who commits sexual abuse of a patient. It also does not expel every offender from its membership rolls. Indeed, the AMA has fought to keep confidential a national database of physicians disciplined for sexual misconduct and other transgressions. Doctors clearly possess political power, professional confidence and a deep aversion to outside scrutiny. Self-regulation is a core principle.
The question is often asked how do doctors “get away” with sexual misconduct? According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s extensive research, the reasons include the following:
- Some victims say nothing. Intimidated, confused or embarrassed, they fear that no one will take their word over a doctor’s word. Colleagues and nurses stay silent.
- Hospitals and health care organizations brush off accusations or quietly push doctors out, the investigation found, without reporting them to police or licensing agencies.
- Physician-dominated medical boards gave offenders second chances.
- Prosecutors dismissed or reduced charges, so doctors could keep practicing and stay off sex offender registries.
- Communities rallied around the physicians.
- The medical profession itself has never taken on sexual misconduct as a significant priority. And layer upon layer of secrecy makes it nearly impossible for the public, or even the medical community itself, to know the extent of physician sexual abuse.
The types of sexual misconduct discovered in the Atlanta Journal Constitution investigation included lewd comments, molestation, masturbation by doctors in front of patients, trading drugs for sex, and rape. Many victims hesitate coming forward for the shame that sexual abuse would bring on them and their families. Some fear law enforcement and deportation; some women fear how their husbands will react. Furthermore, consent is often unclear in these cases. According to the medical profession, however, consent is never a defense in the case of sexual misconduct because of the imbalance of power between doctors and patients.
In many of these cases, the struggle to balance trust, accountability, and necessity of medical care come to the forefront. Doctors are a necessity in communities, especially those with already limited access to vital resources such as healthy food, education, and economic opportunities. Doctors have a special relationship with their patients who are encouraged to be honest and open with them about their health and lifestyle choices. It is for this reason that sexual misconduct by doctors is so devastating. It is an abuse of trust that can alienate people from the resources they need to thrive.
This is indeed a problem which the medical profession needs to address. In the meantime, we commend all victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers who come forward to reports incidents of sexual misconduct by physicians and other health care personnel.
Adam Horowitz is experienced in filing lawsuits on behalf of victims of sexual assault, including numerous cases related to sexual misconduct by physicians and other health care personnel. If you or someone you know has been a victim of a sexual abuse, please e-mail attorney Adam Horowitz at [email protected] or call our law firm at (954) 641-2100.