As we learned earlier this year, it can be extremely difficult — and sometimes impossible — to find information about doctors that have been disciplined by their state medical boards for things like sexual misconduct, overprescribing controlled substances, and various other documented examples of unprofessional or dangerous doctoring. Now, a new report suggests that one reason we might not be able to obtain information related to doctor sexual misconduct is because many cases go unreported, and even in when assaults are reported, they can result in no action being taken against the doctor.
An investigative series published by the Atlanta Journal Constitution describes a broken system that appears to — more often than not — turn a blind eye to doctors who may have sexually abused their patients.
From doctors who have been on the receiving end of dozens of complaints and police reports filed by patients, to those that have actually acknowledged they engaged in sexually abusive behavior, the AJC found many continue to don their white coats and enter examination rooms as practicing medical professionals.
The AJC examined hundreds of thousands of documents that described disturbing acts of physician sexual abuse in every state over the last year, finding that while society is quick to condemn sexual offenders, that same action isn’t followed by the medical community.
The series includes a wealth of information and first-person accounts of doctor abuse and the resulting ramifications for both the doctors, hospitals, and, most importantly, the victim, as well as a state-by-state look at prominent cases and how they are handled.
Here are six things you should know about the seemingly broken system that allows doctors accused of, or who have admitted to, sexual abuse to continue practicing medicine.
1. REPORTING ISSUES
Like many sexual assault cases, many of those allegedly committed by medical professionals go unreported, according to AJC.
In many instances, victims choose to keep quiet about what happened because they feel intimidated, confused, or embarrassed. Sometimes they fear that no one will believe them over a respected doctor.
“We are so reliant on them, we are so helpless and vulnerable and literally in pain often times when we go in there. We just have to trust them,” David Clohessy, the executive director of SNAP, a support and advocacy organization for people sexually abused by priests, doctors and others, tells the AJC.
Because of the way we view physicians, Clohessy says, victims are often in shock that they have been violated, that they don’t want to believe what happened and that a doctor is capable of such actions.
In cases where a victim does come forward, the AJC found that many hospitals and health care organizations often shrug the accusations of sexual misconduct away without reporting them to police or licensing agencies.
According to the AJC, there are only 11 states that have a law requiring medical authorities to report to police or prosecutors when they suspect a sexual crime has been committed against an adult.
2. NOT AN UNCOMMON ISSUE
After examining more than 100,000 disciplinary documents and other records from across the country, the AJC found 3,100 doctors who were publicly disciplined since Jan. 1, 1999 after being accused of sexual misconduct.
Around 2,400 of those physicians were reprimanded for misconduct against patients, while the rest involved sexual harassment of employees or for crimes such as child pornography, public indecency, or sexual assault, AJC reports.
3. COVERING UP THE ISSUE
In some cases, the AJC found that cases of physician sexual misconduct were hidden, either because some state board and hospitals handle some cases secretly or medical boards remove once-public orders from their websites or issue documents that refer to sexual misconduct in vague language.
When cases do receive public attention, medical establishments — hospitals, health care organizations, and doctor groups — assure the public that these incidents are exceedingly rare.
4. LACK OF PUNISHMENT
The AJC found one instance in which a Texas physician was accused by 17 women of misconduct, including rubbing his erection against them during an exam.
Despite the medical board initially suspending the doctor’s license after finding the complaints credible, the man’s acquittal for lack of physical evidence in one patient’s criminal case resulted in the board reinstating him to practice medicine.
The only restriction was that he could only see men for 10 years, a restriction the AJC reports ended two years ago.
“What (he) did was clearly an abuse of his power over these women,” said Dr. Lee Anderson, a Fort Worth ophthalmologist. “But the ugly reality is, what can we actually achieve?”
In other cases, the AJC found doctors were returned to work after seeking treatment at a recovery center where they might take a lie-detector test, learn empathy, work through their issues, or admit to the actions.
5. A SECOND CHANCE
Even when doctors admit to sexual misconduct against a patient, they often don’t stop practicing.
The AJC found that some states are more forgiving than others when it comes to disciplining doctors for these actions. Georgia and Kansas allowed two of every three doctors publicly disciplined for sexual misconduct to return to practice.
Similarly, in Alabama three of every four returned to work, while in Minnesota it was four out of every five, the AJC reports.
Across the country, AJC found that of the 2,400 doctors publicly disciplined for sexual misconduct, half still have active medical licenses today.
Those who believe doctors should receive a second chance after egregious transgressions say it’s about salvaging a career.
“If you graduate a class of more than 100 people out of the University of Alabama medical school, the resources that have been poured into that education almost demand that you try to salvage that physician — if it’s possible,” Larry Dixon, the executive director of the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners, tells AJC.
6. STATE HOPPING
Even when a state does bar a doctor from practicing after such a transgression, the AJC found many simply cross into another state and open practices.
For instance, an Alabama doctor’s license was revoked in 2002 after four female patients complained of misconduct, including fondling, kissing, and inappropriate vaginal exams. While the doctor denied the allegations the revocation was upheld in 2004.
A year later, the AJC reports, the man received a license to practice in Mississippi after the State Board of Medical Licensure determined the doctor “would be an asset to the State of Mississippi.”
“It’s frustrating now and it was frustrating then,” Aaron Haslam, a former executive director of the State Medical Board of Ohio, tells the AJC. “We would try to be tough on an individual that we thought had no business practicing medicine and that individual would lose his license and go set up shop in the state right next to us or in Georgia or in Florida.”
For more on doctor sexual misconduct and how cases are handled — or aren’t — check out the AJC’s series.
License to Betray [Atlanta Journal Constitution]