HHS Must Enhance Data Bank, State Medical Boards to Take Specific Steps to Curb Physician Abuse of Patients

Public Citizen Calls for Boards to Institute Zero-Tolerance Policy, Investigate Every Complaint, Push for Improved State Laws

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Serious action is needed, including zero-tolerance policies and improved state laws, to curb patient sexual abuse by physicians and other health care practitioners, Public Citizen said today in letters to various agencies and medical boards.

The letters were sent to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), leaders of the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and each of 71 state medical and osteopathic boards in the U.S.

The letters and recommendations follow a comprehensive Public Citizen report released in May that found, among other things, that only 1,354 physicians (0.2% of U.S. general physician population) have been reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) between 2003 and 2017 for sexual misconduct – dramatically lower than the much larger percentage of physicians who self-reported engaging in this unethical behavior in a nationally representative survey. The NPDB is a national flagging system that contains information on medical malpractice payments and certain adverse actions by medical boards and hospitals related to health care practitioners.

The recommendations to the government agencies include enhancing the specificity and thoroughness of the NPDB, increasing reporting of sexually abusive and problematic practitioners and making the NPDB accessible to the public.

The FSMB letter encouraged the organization to replace the term “sexual misconduct” with the term “sexual abuse of patients” in all of its policies and communications when referring to any sexual contact between physicians and their patients or any behavior or remarks of a sexual nature by physicians toward their patients. It also encouraged the FSMB to classify physician sexual abuse of patients as a “never event” and implement a zero-tolerance standard for such conduct and assist medical boards to do the same.

The medical board letters called for implementing recommendations to root out sexual abuse of patients, including: educating the public on how to prevent and recognize abuse; encouraging and facilitating reporting of abuse by patients, patient surrogates and health care practitioners; investigating every complaint of alleged sexual abuse and conducting hearings as warranted; taking effective disciplinary actions against physicians who have engaged in any such form of abuse; and working with state legislature to strengthen laws intended to protect patients.

“It is imperative that state boards, the FSMB and federal government take the tangible actions that we outlined to protect patients from sexually abusive physicians and other health care professionals as applicable,” said Dr. Azza AbuDagga, health services researcher for Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

View the letters here.