If there's one person you ought to be able to trust, it's your doctor. However, an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows that this "given" may not be a given at all: It found that doctors accused, or even convicted, of sexual abuse are often allowed to continue practicing, without consequences or restrictions. Many of these doctors, the investigation found, assault and abuse dozens of victims over the course of their career and are frequently never stopped. Which is absolutely chilling.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes that although the vast majority of the almost 1 million physicians practicing in the United States never engage in inappropriate sexual behavior of any kind, the fact that the medical community tends to excuse and overlook those who do allows for a culture where sexual assault and abuse by doctors goes unchecked.
"Hospitals and health care organizations brush off accusations or quietly push doctors out ... without reporting them to police or licensing agencies," reporters explain in a piece in the investigative series titled "License to Betray." "Physician-dominated medical boards gave offenders second chances. Prosecutors dismissed or reduced charges, so doctors could keep practicing and stay off sex offender registries. Communities rallied around them."
And this happens, they found, in every state in the country. Combing through over 100,000 disciplinary records going back to 1999, reporters at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found 3,100 doctors disciplined for sexual misconduct, including 2,400 cases that involved sexual misconduct involving patients. The actual numbers, though, they estimate are much higher given how many victims are too intimidated to come forward.
Yet, they write, "When cases do come to the public’s attention, they are often brushed off by the medical establishment as freakishly rare."
Despite the fact that sexual contact of any kind — even consensual sexual contact — between a doctor and their patient that is concurrent with the doctor-patient relationship is sexual misconduct, according to the American Medical Association (AMA), violations of this rule are clearly not as rare as the medical community would like to believe. It's a problem even among the most well-respected physicians in the country. But the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that it is rare for a doctor to permanently lose his or her license for assaulting patients.
Doctors are given warnings or are allowed to complete rehabilitation programs or undergo sensitivity training. Some have their licenses suspended or reach an agreement limiting their access to the types of patients they target, but are eventually allowed to practice without restriction again. Some who get into trouble in one state simply move to another. It is rare, they report, for doctors to lose their license; it is even more rare for the medical community to report their crimes to the police.
"No one in the medical profession condones sexual abuse by doctors," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution explains. "But silence, secrecy and inconsistent consequences have created a system that puts patients at risk by protecting doctors who abuse."
In many ways, this is sadly unsurprising. Recent decades have seen any number of scandals involving organizations that allegedly cover up sexual abuse allegations within their ranks. And to be clear, the issue is not that these organizations are full of sexual predators; they aren't. The issue is that there aren't consequences for the ones who are, making them bolder and allowing them to continue hurting people for years — or even decades.
So how does anyone keep themselves safe from this? How do you know your doctor doesn't have a secret history of abuse that's being swept under the rug by his colleagues? Well, fortunately, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has collected some resources for that. Because each state is different, they've created a state-by-state resource guide for patients that explains where you can look up disciplinary cases against a given physician and where you can file complaints within your state (the District of Columbia is included as well). In general, they also recommend the website for the Federation of State Medical Boards, as well as HealthGrades.com. Additionally, they have also created a resources page for people who have been abused by doctors.
People deserve the right to feel safe with their doctors. But in order for that to happen, the medical community needs to take sexual abuse more seriously. And until that happens, do what you can to keep yourself safe, and know that if you are assaulted by your doctor, it's not your fault and you aren't alone.
You can find the full, multi-part investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution here.