Sweeping reforms and public awareness should follow a national investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — in coordination with this newspaper in Ohio — of how doctors who sexually abuse patients often face limited consequences.
“I can’t believe so much leniency is shown to these doctors,” said Dan Frondorf, chapter leader for the Dayton and Cincinnati chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He was shocked that medical boards in some states operate with secrecy that to him appears similar to what was seen in the church.
The AJC’s and this newspaper’s investigations, which were launched online last week and began in print Sunday, exposed a phenomenon of physician sexual misconduct that is tolerated to some degree in all 50 states.
This newspaper found that Ohio’s medical board is among the nation’s strictest and most transparent when dealing with such allegations, though discipline can still sometimes take years and follow multiple violations.
“The State Medical Board of Ohio will continue to pursue administrative action to the fullest extent possible,” said State Medical Board of Ohio Spokeswoman Tessie Pollock in reaction to the story. “We want to know of misconduct and we’re dedicated to addressing complaints with quick and thorough investigations.”
‘People are in denial’
Sidney Wolfe, co-founder of the Health Research Group at the advocacy organization Public Citizen, said the AJC’s reporting highlights a problem that has long been ignored.
“It’s mind-boggling how much the health care system fails when these cases arise,” he said, noting that his organization reached similar conclusions when it studied the issue in the late 1990s. “There’s no evidence of a significant diminution of these cases, and the reason is people are in denial.”
Wolfe said the problem of physician sexual abuse will persist until medical boards take meaningful action against offenders.
“The final common pathway is the medical board,” he said. “If they don’t do anything, the doctor is free to continue practicing. A fine, probation — that really doesn’t do it. If there is clear evidence that a doctor sexually abused a patient, that doctor should no longer be allowed to practice.”
Boston attorney Stan Spero said he found the AJC’s findings consistent with what he has witnessed in more than three decades representing people sexually abused by physicians, members of the clergy and other professionals.
“The reason that your numbers ring true is the (state medical) boards are run by professionals who tend to know each other,” he said. “It’s like the old boys’ club.”
Spero has represented victims in several high-profile cases involving Catholic priests. He said those abused by physicians are left with the same scars as those abused by members of the clergy. That’s because doctors are “idealized,” creating “almost an adult-child” relationship, he said.
Becky Perkins, communications director with the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said this newspaper’s findings, “unfortunately validates much of what we know about sexual assault and abuse, which is it’s committed by people in a position of power against people that are vulnerable.”
She was disturbed by inconsistencies among states on how such cases are handled, sometimes meaning a doctor can practice in Ohio after losing his or her license in another state, sometimes without the public knowing what the allegations were elsewhere.
“Patients have every right to know what their treating physician has been accused of or sanctioned for in the past,” she said.
The Federation of State Medical Boards said state regulators take sexual misconduct seriously and have worked in recent years to address the issue. It noted that its House of Delegates adopted a policy in April that urges physicians, hospitals, health care organizations, insurers and the public to be proactive in reporting instances of unprofessional behavior, including sexual misconduct, to medical boards.
“Sexual misconduct by physicians is abhorrent and all stakeholders in health care must be vigilant in reporting suspected incidents,” the federation said in a statement to the AJC.
The AJC’s series reported that the vast majority of doctors do not sexually abuse patients. But the investigation found that it happens far more often than the medical profession has acknowledged.
‘What we are doing now
doesn’t seem to be working’
Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center, described the series as timely and important and deserving of a thoughtful response from lawmakers and medical boards across the country. “The correct response is, ‘What can we do to diminish this?’ because what we are now doing doesn’t seem to be working,” he said.
A patient safety advocate pointed out that sexual misconduct is only one area where state medical boards have treated physicians with deference.
“The failure of state medical boards to take action against doctors’ sexual abuse parallels their failure to act effectively against doctors that abuse drugs and alcohol, and also against doctors demonstrating gross incompetence,” John T. James, a toxicologist who is the founder of Patient Safety America, told the AJC. “Until state medical boards are comprised of mostly non-physician, public members, this sort of secret-keeping is going to work against safe care for patients. I hope your startling revelations will serve as a catalyst for changing the composition of medical boards.”
Frances Duncan, a counselor who helps victims of sex abuse in the Dayton area, said such stories should help people understand that sexual assault is an “epidemic” and predators often don’t match society’s expectations.
“We would think of somebody who maybe has a criminal history or a poor background or what our typical view of what an offender may be,” she said. “There are doctors that are offenders. There are religious leader that are offenders. There are professional people that are offenders.”