11 Steps Medical Community Must Take to Prevent Physician Abuse of Patients

Public Citizen Perspective Outlines Practices to Stop Abuses While Increasing Reporting

WASHINGTON, D.C. – State medical boards and the entire medical community must take 11 key steps to prevent patient sexual abuse at the hands of physicians while also facilitating higher reporting of such events, including adopting a zero tolerance policy, Public Citizen outlined in a Perspective article published today by the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

According to the article, victims face many challenges in reporting their assaults and having their physician abusers punished, including knowing how to file a complaint and having state medical boards and hospitals act on them.

“Despite the #MeToo movement and evidence from our 2016 study and other sources that physician sexual abuse of patients is a pervasive problem in the U.S., we do not yet see tangible steps in this country to stop it,” said Dr. Azza AbuDagga, health services researcher for Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and co-author of the Perspective article. “Such abuse of patients by their doctors violates the ‘do no harm’ ethical principle long upheld in medical ethics.”

Public Citizen’s Perspective piece builds on findings from a previous Public Citizen study finding that over a decade, only about 1,000 physicians were reported for sexual misconduct to the National Practitioner Data Bank (a national system for flagging potentially dangerous doctors).

To eliminate physician abuse of patients while increasing reporting of such events, state medical boards should, among other things:

  • Educate the public about how to prevent, recognize and report physician sexual abuse;
  • Discipline and report to authorities physicians who are found to have engaged in any form of sexual abuse of patients; and
  • Disclose on their websites complete information concerning all disciplinary actions against sexually abusive physicians.

Additionally, the medical community including medical boards and health care organizations, should:

  • Replace the term “sexual misconduct” with the term “sexual abuse” to properly characterize the exploitative unethical nature of this behavior;
  • Educate physicians about the enormity of sexual abuse of patients, how to avoid it and how to seek help if they are struggling with their boundaries with patients;
  • Mandate reporting by physicians and other professionals of any witnessed or suspected abuse;
  • Encourage and facilitate reporting by patients and their families of all forms of abuse by a physician;
  • Investigate thoroughly each complaint of alleged physician sexual abuse of patients;
  • Provide trained chaperones to act as “practice monitors” during body exams; and
  • Establish and fund programs to provide subsidized psychological counseling for all victims.

Public Citizen also calls on the medical community implement a zero tolerance policy against sexual abuse of patients, which has been adopted by other countries, including parts of Canada and New Zealand.

“We implore the U.S. medical community and state legislatures to adopt an explicit zero tolerance standard against all forms of physician sexual abuse of patients,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, founder and senior adviser of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and co-author of the Perspective article. “Our recommendations are commonsense policies that can make a major difference in patients’ lives and ensuring their safety.”

Read an abstract of the Perspective article.