,In the wake of a stunning barrage of accusations of sexual abuse against prominent men in the entertainment industry in recent weeks, many Americans are calling for changes in how our culture responds to sex abuse claims. Hundreds of thousands of women are posting to social media using the hashtag #MeToo in an attempt to bring awareness to how widespread the problem is. And the media is furiously reporting new allegations against an ever broader swath of powerful men every day. Yet one issue that has largely escaped media attention is that of physician sexual abuse.
In a blog post on Physician Practice, Rachel V. Rose, J.D., MBA speaks to the reasons why physicians routinely avoid sanctions or punishment for sexual abuse. Citing a chilling report by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Doctors & Sex Abuse, she discusses complicit behavior on the part of hospitals, employers and other physicians that enable sexually abusive physicians to continue victimizing patients for years. And she questions why those entities, whose moral and legal obligation is to protect patients from harm, so often fail to act.
Do No Harm?
Every doctor in the United States understands that a physician’s first duty is to “do no harm.” And no one questions that the physical and emotional harm patients experience from sexual abuse is severe. Yet hospitals and physicians regularly cover up such harmful behavior on the part of colleagues and staff.
Even the American Medical Association seems complicit in protecting sexually abusive doctors. In a statement quoted in the Atlantic Journal Constitution, former AMA president Steven Stack said the organization “without exception” condemns sex and “romantic contact” between physicians and patients. But, he added,
“We believe in redemption sometimes for people. There are people who are, perhaps, serial offenders, and the medical boards need to remove them, and they need not to have the opportunity for further chances. Then there are other people for whom the circumstances make all the difference.”
Doctors, after all, he said, are “humans like anybody else.”
A Class Action Suit Alleges Cover-up
Amid a growing number of sexual misconduct cases against physicians and their employers, a class action lawsuit against Kaiser Permanente is currently unfolding in the Maryland courts. Filed on Aug. 3, 2017, by patient Jacqueline Scales against Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group PC, the suit alleges that Dr. Bryan Williams, a pain management specialist and anesthesiologist, sexually assaulted at least 12 women between 2012 and 2014. If further alleges that Kaiser was made aware of the assaults on multiple occasions beginning in May 2013, but took no action until January 2014. Kaiser admits that it received the reports but allowed Dr. Williams to continue seeing patients until it investigated the complaints.
Kaiser has since fired Dr. Williams and reported his actions to the Maryland State Board of Physicians. The medical board suspended William’s license, but as of this writing, the District Attorney has declined to file criminal charges against him.
Protecting Patients and Yourself
It goes without saying that the number of physicians who sexually abuse patients is very small. Yet, when colleagues remain silent, they, too, are complicit in allowing the abuse to go on. Thus, the most important thing an ethical physician can do to protect patients from abusive doctors is to report any allegation or suspicion of sexual abuse to appropriate authorities immediately. It is difficult to report a colleague, certainly. But while sexual assault is a crime, it is not just common criminals who offend. Over the years, a startling number of highly respected and well-loved doctors have been convicted of sexual abuse.
Further, doctors who see patients of the opposite sex should have a medical assistant or nurse (preferably the same gender as the patient) in the room during exams. And if a patient behaves in a sexually suggestive way during any interaction, the physician should quickly let the patient known that romantic contact of any kind between a doctor and his patients is unethical. Patients who fail to respect these boundaries should be referred to another physician for care.
Lastly, hospital administrators, human resources departments and medical oversight committees must be vigilant in investigating suspect behavior and reports of sexual abuse both to protect vulnerable patients and to avoid liability for an abusive doctor’s acts.
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