Outrage of the Month: Physician Sexual Abuse of Patients

Health Letter, August 2019

By Michael Carome, M.D.

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If you’re not outraged,
you’re not paying attention!

Read what Public Citizen has to say about the biggest blunders and outrageous offenses in the world of public health, published monthly in Health Letter.

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Image: Mihai Surdu/Shutterstock.com

In this issue of Health Letter, Dr. Azza AbuDagga summarized the important Perspective article, “Time to End Physician Sexual Abuse of Patients: Calling the U.S. Medical Community to Action,” which was published in the July issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine (JGIM). Coauthored by AbuDagga and her colleagues at Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, the Perspective highlighted the persistent problem of physician sexual abuse of patients in the U.S. and sounded a clarion call to the medical community to promptly implement a zero-tolerance standard against it.

The need for such a zero-tolerance standard has become clear to the public as countless recent media reports have exposed horrifying examples of physicians across the country who have sexually abused patients — often multiple patients over many years. The following are just a few examples that provide faces to the perpetrators and victims of this egregious conduct. As these examples show, too often, state medical boards and health care organizations have allowed such physicians to continue practicing despite complaints of sexual abuse, thus endangering additional patients.

A pedophile pediatrician in Pennsylvania

On March 18, 2019, the Associated Press reported the story of Dr. Johnnie Barto, a former pediatrician from Johnstown, Pa., who was sentenced on March 18 to at least 79 years in prison for sexually assaulting 31 children, most of whom were his patients, over several decades. In Dec. 2018, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office noted that most of the sexual assaults of children committed by Barto occurred in examination rooms at his pediatric group practice and at local hospitals. The victims included girls and boys, many aged eight to 12, with one victim being a two-week-old infant.

Disturbingly, the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine missed an opportunity to stop Barto in 2000 when he faced administrative charges for molesting two young girls in the 1990s. However, according to the AP, the Board dismissed the case and allowed him to resume practicing medicine, stating at the time that the allegations were “incongruous to his reputation.” Barto subsequently molested at least a dozen more children before being arrested in January 2018.

In Dec. 2018, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office announced that Barto pleaded guilty to sexually abusing family members who were minors and admitted to assaulting more than two dozen children over many years. At his sentencing hearing, many of his now-adult victims testified about lifelong struggles with depression, anxiety and distrust of men.

Commenting on Barto’s guilty pleas, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said, “Dr. Johnnie Barto used his position of authority — as the pediatrician who families relied on — to feed his own sick desires and take advantage of parents and children seeking basic health care. My Office was able to bring him to justice because of the brave survivors who came forward and told their stories of abuse and assault, and I thank them for their courage. We will hold child sexual predators accountable for their crimes in Pennsylvania, whenever we find them — in a school, in a church, or in a family’s doctor’s office.”

A sexual predator in a Manhattan emergency department

On Jan. 23, 2017, The New York Times published a report about Dr. David Newman, an emergency department doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, who was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to assaulting four female patients.

In one particularly chilling account, a 29-year-old woman described going to the Mount Sinai Hospital emergency department for evaluation of shoulder pain in January 2016 and being evaluated by Newman. According to the Times, Newman gave the woman a sedative, which prevented her from speaking or opening her eyes, and then proceeded to masturbate at her bedside and ejaculate on her face. Criminal investigators matched DNA samples collected from the woman’s face to Newman, which lead to his indictment in March 2016. At Newman’s sentencing hearing, the woman told the State Supreme Court in Manhattan that “I have not been able to trust a doctor since, and I never will.”

Newman also had been charged with sexual abuse of three other patients. In three separate incidents in 2015, he inappropriately touched the breasts of women who were seen in the pediatric section of the emergency department when there was no medical reason for a breast exam: One woman had a headache, one had a cold and the third had a rash on her eyebrows.

The judge who presided over Newman’s sentencing hearing characterized the doctor’s behavior as “a gross violation of [his] position of trust.”

A California university clinic gynecologist allegedly sexually abused hundreds of patients

On June 26, 2019, The Los Angeles Times reported the case of former University of Southern California (USC) gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall, who was arrested and charged with 29 felonies related to the sexual abuse of 16 patients at a USC campus health clinic between 2009 and 2016.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, which filed the criminal charges against Tyndall, and the Los Angeles Police Department have received allegations of abuse by the doctor from nearly 400 women, making it the largest sex crimes inquiry involving a single suspect in the city. More charges against Dr. Tyndall are likely.

According to the LA Times, Tyndall has been accused, among other things, of “[touching] women inappropriately during pelvic exams, [making] suggestive and lewd comments about their bodies and [photographing] their genitals for purposes colleagues found dubious.” These complaints were made by female students, who were his patients, and USC campus clinic staff.

Despite earlier complaints about alleged patient abuse, Tyndall was allowed to continue treating students at USC until 2016, when a nurse at the clinic complained to a campus rape crisis counselor. The LA Times reported that under a secret deal reached with USC, “he left USC in 2017 with a financial payout and a clean record with the state medical board.”

Unfortunately, these disturbing cases represent just the tip of the iceberg of physician sexual abuse of patients in the U.S.

As we stressed in our recent JGIM Perspective, no patient should ever experience any form of sexual abuse, or fear of being subjected to such behavior, by a physician. State medical boards, professional organizations and health care institutions must act aggressively now to end the scourge of physician sexual abuse of patients. Any action short of considering physician sexual misconduct an unacceptable and devastating public health hazard for which health care organizations and individual physicians must be held accountable means we have failed in the most fundamental tenet of health care: Do no harm.