Firm-Wide blog

Dr. Larry Nasser is not the only one; Sexual Assault and the Medical Profession

By Burg Simpson
February 1, 2019
6 min read

By David C. Harman, Burg Simpson Shareholder

As the recent sexual assault scandals involving coaches, clergy, and youth leaders have shown, some people use positions of trust and power to take advantage of others. Indeed, psychologists have long known that predators seek out positions of power and trust for several reasons, including easy access to victims.  One profession in our society revered for its god-like power and trust is the medical profession; however, the medical profession has not garnered much attention in the “Me Too” movement. Yes, there was the horrific case of Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics team doctor convicted of serial child molestation, but, other than that, there has been little to no discussion about the prevalence of sexual abuse among physicians. The lack of discussion regarding the prevalence on sexual assault in the medical field may make one think that it is a non-issue—after all, we, as a society, hold the profession in such a high regard. Unfortunately, that is far from the truth.

Doctors Sexually Assaulting Patients is a Pervasive Problem in the United States

As patients, we put a tremendous amount of trust in our physicians. Indeed, physicians often see us at our most vulnerable: sick, naked, and/or sedated. The vast majority of physicians not only honor our trust, but take their oath of “do no harm” seriously. Some, however, do not. For example, a 2016 study found that from January 1, 2003 through September 30, 2013, 1039 physicians had one or more reports of sexual misconduct.  Of those, more than two-thirds were not disciplined by any state medical board.

What is a State Medical Board and Why Aren’t They Disciplining?

State medical boards are responsible for licensing, disciplining, and regulating physicians and other health care professionals. Physicians are obligated to report incompetent or unethical conduct that may put patients at risk to their state medical board. Patients may also submit a complaint to their state medical board. Once the medical board receives a complaint, the complaint is investigated and, ultimately, the medical board will decide whether to take disciplinary action. Disciplinary action can range from a reprimand to permanent revocation of one’s medical license. However, each state’s medical board is independent, meaning it is possible, and not uncommon, for a physician to have his or her license revoked in one state, only to be granted a license in another. You can access Kentucky’s Board of Medical Licensure reporting page here. Ohio’s Medical Board can be accessed here.

The answer as to why state medical boards are not disciplining physicians reported for sexual misconduct is not dissimilar to the reason why other organizations have failed to address the issue: it’s not viewed as a “big” problem, the profession seeks to protect itself, and the abuse is often minimized in comparison to the physicians’ skills and other purported benefits to the community. As Dr. Alraf Saadi noted in his 2018 article:

The medical profession has failed [sexual assault] victims, too. Hospitals ignored reports of sexual assaults and encouraged offending physicians to resign rather than reporting them to medical boards or law enforcement. State medical boards aren’t always a good solution — they are often run by physicians who support their peers without oversight from nonphysician members to help ensure independent accountability.

Physicians’ disciplinary records are not always posted publically. And when they are, they commonly fail to describe the serious nature of sexual assault, using vague language like “boundary violation” or “unprofessional conduct.”

Dr. Saadi’s statements came on the heels of an investigative article published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which discovered that more than 2,400 doctors were sanctioned since January 1, 1999 nationwide for sexual violations involving patients. Unfortunately, it is likely that the actual numbers of survivors of sexual abuse by physicians is much higher than the numbers reported.

Cases of Abuse in Ohio and Kentucky

Sexual abuse by a physician is a nationwide problem. It should come as no surprise that there have been numerous cases in Ohio and Kentucky. For example, in 2010, a Kentucky physician admitted to performing non-consensual oral sex on a patient. Despite this and various other charges, the physician retained his medical license, although he is now required to have a chaperone in the examination room. In Ohio, a physician received a 90 day suspension of his license in 2005 following his conviction for public indecency and admission that he routinely exposed himself to others

Survivors of Sexual Abuse by a Physician

Although the lack of action being taken by state medical boards against physicians is extremely concerning, this should not be a reason for survivors not to come forward. As David Clohessy, the executive director of Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests has said, “Crimes are crimes, no matter who commits them.” Accordingly, survivors should come forward and hold their abusers accountable. How? First by contacting law enforcement. Sexual assault is a crime and the abuser should be held criminally accountable. Survivors should also contact their state’s medical board and lodge a complaint, even if they think that medical board will not do anything. The more that medical boards are made aware of a physician’s bad acts, the more apt they are to take action. Additionally, the more people speak up, the more likely that medical boards will take the issue more seriously. (A prime example of this is the recent clergy sex abuse scandal: eventually so many survivors came forward that the church had to confront the issue.) Finally, survivors should contact an attorney. Survivors of abuse can bring a civil lawsuit against the physician for money damages. Obviously, a civil suit, or even a criminal conviction, will not take away the pain, sense of betrayal, and sense of violation that a survivor of abuse may feel; however, just coming forward through these actions may bring survivors a sense of control and vindication. Additionally, coming forward may stop a predator from harming others.

If you or a loved one have been sexually abused by a physician, Burg Simpson can help. Contact Burg Simpson’s Cincinnati office today by calling 1-800-713-9340 or filling out our contact form for a free, confidential consultation.

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