Doctors & Sexual Abuse

Breit Cantor Grana BucknerMay 20, 2021

As a society, we place a lot of trust in doctors, believing that they will follow a code of ethics when treating patients. But that isn’t always the case. 

The University of Southern California’s (USC) recent settlement arising out of the sexual abuse its students by campus gynecologist George Tyndall brought this troubling problem back into the spotlight. While we may never understand why this occurs, understanding the resources available to those who may face these circumstances could be a step towards preventing the abuse. Awareness of these terrible crimes could help more people recognize the difference between appropriate and inappropriate doctor behavior.

How Common is Sexual Abuse By a Doctor?

In the USC case, more than 700 women accused the college’s campus gynecologist of sexual abuse. The school settled civil claims made by these women for more than one billion dollars and George Tyndall now faces 35 criminal counts of sexual misconduct from 2009 to 2016. The number of victims and large settlements garnered media attention for this case, but it is just one of a number seen recently.

In July 2017, a judge sentenced USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar to 60 years in federal prison. In 2018, the state of Michigan sentenced him to another 175 years in state prison. In addition, Michigan State University also agreed to pay a $500 million settlement to victims.  

Physician sexual misconduct affects men as well as women. In 2018, dozens of men made allegations against Dr. Richard Strauss, claiming he engaged in sexual abuse of male students from 1978 to 1998 at Ohio State University. A 2019 report found that at least 177 male students and patients suffered sexual abuse at Strauss’ hands.

An investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2016 identified approximately 2,400 cases of doctor sexual abuse across the country. Unfortunately, that is likely only a small percentage of the actual abuses that occurred.

Many patients don’t report doctor sexual abuse for a variety of reasons. Some patients are simply confused as to whether they experienced sexual abuse. Seldom do we learn about what is and isn’t appropriate doctor-patient behavior. If victims were young, they may question their memories of the experience, believing they imagined it or may have disassociated from it altogether. 

What Qualifies as Sexual Abuse by a Doctor?

Sexual abuse is when a person uses force, power, or status to take advantage of another person to inflict unwanted sexual activity. Sexual abuse happens over a period of time and often involves children because they are less able to advocate for themselves or are easily taken advantage of. 

In the context of the medical field, a 2020 report by the Federation of State Medical Boards defined physician sexual misconduct as:

“Behavior that exploits the physician-patient relationship in a sexual way. Sexual behavior between a physician and a patient is never diagnostic or therapeutic. This behavior may be verbal or physical, can occur in person or virtually, and may include expressions of thoughts and feelings or gestures that are of a sexual nature or that a patient or surrogate may reasonably construe as sexual.” 

A 2017 analysis of cases in the U.S. found some patterns worth noting. The study looked for trends in 101 cases of doctor sex abuse and found:

  • Most cases involved male doctors
  • Nearly all the doctors in this analysis were under the age of 39
  • Almost 95 percent were in private practice
  • More than 70 percent of the doctors were not board-certified

They also discovered that most abuse occurs when the doctor is alone with the patient and that most abusive doctors repeated the abuse on patients. Doctors may start with grooming behaviors, actions designed to build trust, to see if the patient becomes upset. Grooming might include flirting, light touching, and flattery. This gives the abuser a chance to identify which patients are most likely to succumb to forced intimacy.

The abuse typically lasts for at least two years and involves different violations. Most whistleblowers in these cases are not other staff members but abused patients. There are also documented cases of hospital administrations that fail to report sexual abuse in their facilities. They may quietly settle with the victim and then ensure that the physician resigns from their employment. That doesn’t keep sexual abusers from practicing medicine, though.

What Patients Can Expect During a Medical Exam

You have the right to expect certain protections in a medical setting, including:

  • Asking the doctor to stop doing anything that makes you uncomfortable
  • Asking that someone else be in the room during your exam, including a friend, family member, or another healthcare professional such as a nurse
  • Asking for a doctor who is the same gender
  • Privacy when changing clothes and during the exam
  • Having questions answered about what the staff are doing
  • Provide information to you in the language you speak
  • Asking the doctor to stop if something hurts

Patients should also have an understanding of what a doctor shouldn’t do because it is inappropriate, like:

  • Examining your private areas without gloves
  • Refusing to stop doing something that makes you uncomfortable
  • Refusing to explain what they are doing
  • Refusing to allow another person in the room
  • Insisting that you undress the body areas under examination
  • Asking inappropriate questions about your sexual activity

Patients should ask questions about what a doctor is doing during an exam if necessary. And they have the right to expect an answer.

How Do You Report a Doctor for Sexual Abuse

If you suspect doctor sexual abuse, you should first call the police. Sexual abuse by anyone is a crime. You should also contact the state medical board and file a complaint. It is up to a state medical board to revoke a doctor’s license.

You can contact any organization affiliated with the physician, like a hospital or clinic. They should immediately investigate your allegation. If they don’t, you might need legal help.

You should also consider getting a lawyer that specializes in sexual abuse. A lawyer will work with you to determine your legal rights and the actions you can take to ensure justice.

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