Were you or a loved one sexually assaulted by a doctor? You are not alone. Even though no one talks about it, sexual abuse and misconduct is stunningly widespread within the medical community. Every week, a new shocking case emerges.
Today, we hear regularly about doctors and anesthesiologists who have taken advantage of their power, the very trust that patients place in them, to victimize and abuse in terrible ways. Sexual harassment is still common in the examination room, as it is in the halls of medical clinics across the country.
This disgusting truth is only now coming to light. It all began in 2015, when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution began to uncover disturbing secrets about the system designed to discipline doctors. Thanks to the invaluable work of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, we know understand that physician sexual assault is common. We also know that few physicians are punished for their misconduct; many, if not most, continue practicing medicine.
Even more important, the world learned about the pain and fear that sexual abuse survivors experience on a daily basis after being victimized by their doctors. But still few of these victims are given a real shot at justice. Most cases of doctor sexual assault don't make the headlines. Many are hidden for years behind the closed doors of medical practices and medical review boards.
Sexual assault is a deep violation of medical ethics. Some states have even made it against the law for a doctor to have a sexual relationship with a patient, whether or not the patient consents. Even in states where it's not explicitly illegal, sexual misconduct is against the "code" of the medical profession.
Medical authorities around the world acknowledge this fact. The American Medical Association states this principle very clearly, writing that "sexual contact that occurs concurrent with the patient-physician relationship constitutes sexual misconduct."
Thus any form of sexual contact, whether consensual or nonconsensual, should be considered misconduct, a violation of the physician's ethical code.
There is a strong and irresolvable power dynamic between doctors and their patients. We turn to doctors with trust in our hearts. We go to them to keep us healthy, or heal us when we are ill. We trust in their judgment in matters of life and death. And we place a great deal of stock in their credentials and experience. In this context, there is no excuse for beginning a sexual relationship with a patient, let alone propositioning, harassing or assaulting him or her.
It is inexcusable, even when the patient appears to have consented to the sexual conduct. Strong power dynamics often erode our capacity to provide consent. As the American Medical Association writes, "sexual harassment exploits inequalities in status and power [and] abuses the rights and trust of those who are subjected to such conduct." Doctor sexual assault is coercion, plain and simple.
Doctors owe us a duty of care. They owe us the duty to provide medical care by following the standards established in the field. When they violate this duty, exploiting our trust to commit atrocities, it's malpractice. The prohibition against sexual contact within the medical field is well-established and universally agreed-upon. It's not a matter of debate.
As such, there can be little doubt that doctors who violate their code by maintaining any form of sexual contact with a patient (whether through unwelcome sexual advances, requesting sexual favors, bargaining for sex through the offering of drugs or outright sexual assault) have committed malpractice and can be held accountable in a civil lawsuit.
Some are filed on the tort theory of assault and battery. Assault and battery, in the area of civil law, are actually two separate offenses committed against a person. Assault is the act of intentionally making another person fear an imminent and harmful contact. Battery is making good on that threat, actually coming into contact with the person in a harmful and nonconsensual manner.
The important thing to note now, however, is that assault and battery are torts of intent, offenses that carry some level of intention on the part of the perpetrator. Some doctor sexual assault lawsuits, on the other hand, take the form of a malpractice claim. These are claims of negligence, and require proof of a careless disregard for the safety and wellbeing of others.
Often, attorneys choose to file a malpractice suit under these circumstances because the doctor's defense team is expected to treat the claim as a malpractice claim.
It also makes pairing multiple claims against multiple defendants easier. Many of these civil cases aren't just filed against the doctor who assaulted a patient. Claims can also be filed against the hospital or medical clinic where the doctor worked, because medical facilities have a duty to supervise their physician-employees adequately. These cases, based on the theory of negligence, are likely to be treated as malpractice claims. Your attorney will devise the best strategy for your own claim.
Many sexual assault survivors take the courageous step of filing a personal injury lawsuit against the doctor who abused them. Needless to say, this is a deeply personal choice that can be extremely painful. Many victims are understandably fearful that, if the facts of their case again come to light, they will be victimized all over again.
It would be a lie to say that preparing and pursuing a lawsuit is a process free of pain, but we've also seen how much good filing a lawsuit can do in a survivor's life. It can be an empowering experience, one that allows survivors the opportunity to take control of this terrible situation. Legal action is also often the only way that abusive doctors and their employers will ever be punished.
Elsewhere, we've documented the lax regulations that allow dangerous sexual predators to remain in practice long after they should have been disbarred from the field of medicine. Staffed by their peers, medical licensing boards often "go easy" on doctors who abuse their patients, giving them a light slap on the wrists when jail time is more appropriate.
Some medical boards even hide allegations of sexual misconduct from the public, allowing doctors who have committed horrendous crimes to broker backroom deals instead of facing the harsh light of criticism.
Civil Litigation Empowers Victims
Most physicians just don't want to face up to the facts, so they hide them. Civil litigation, on the other hand, is a fair and transparent process. Survivors get their day in court. And abusive physicians are forced to answer for their actions in the public record. In some cases, a successful civil lawsuit even triggers disciplinary action against a doctor, as medical licensing boards catch up to the civil courts.
For all these reasons and more, we believe that pursuing civil litigation is an important step in the fight against sexual predators. No one should be allowed to use their privileged position of power to harm others. No doctor who abuses his or her patients should be allowed to continue violating patients. Filing a civil lawsuit is often the first step in ensuring that patients in the future are treated with respect and dignity.
Very likely. As we've already mentioned, every hospital and medical clinic in the country has a legal obligation to ensure that patients are being treated with care and respect. Every medical clinic should have strong policies in place to screen out dangerous doctors from the hiring process and properly supervise a physician's conduct as he or she works. Thorough background checks should be performed for each doctor and, ideally, renewed on an annual or bi-annual basis. Hospitals should also make a thorough review of malpractice complaints that have been filed against the doctor, and check in with the state's medical licensing board to identify any disciplinary action that has been taken against the physician in the past. Obviously, there are many ways a hospital or medical clinic can ensure they are hiring only professional doctors with clean public records. At the same time, medical facilities should do their utmost to investigate sexual assault complaints after they arise. Unfortunately, many hospitals fail to uphold their sworn obligations. We've heard numerous stories of hospitals who failed to perform background checks, hiring dangerous sexual predators and allowing them into the examination room with patients. We've even litigated cases in which medical clinics violated their duty to care for patients by concealing sexual abuse reports against a physician from a medical licensing board. Any violation of this nature can serve as the basis for a negligence suit against the medical facility.
We believe that all reports of sexual assault, whether they involve doctors or members of the general public, should be forwarded to law enforcement officials as soon as possible. But hospitals aren't always legally obligated to do so. State laws vary on whether medical professionals are required to report their suspicions about sexual assault when the potential crime involves a competent adult victim.
In most states, victims of sexual assault will have to report the crime to the appropriate authorities themselves, which can be difficult. Many assault survivors fear that they will not be believed, or worse, will be victim-shamed, especially going up against a "trusted" medical professional. Other victims struggle with feelings of shame and embarrassment, believing that they did something wrong and somehow deserved their mistreatment. You did not bring this on your self. You are not at fault. This is not your fault; you were victimized, by someone you trusted to help you. There is no question who the aggressor is in this situation. You were wronged, and reporting the abuse to the police is the right thing to do. Outside of filing a civil lawsuit, reporting the crime to the police is the only way to see justice done. And since around two-thirds of doctors who are reported for sexual misconduct are never disciplined by medical licensing boards, it's often the only way that physicians who abuse their position of power will ever face consequences for their actions. Reporting the crime can also serve to light the way for other survivors. When one person steps forward, more victims tend to follow. That's a very important and powerful thing to do, since as we've seen so often, many of these physicians have multiple victims. It's not uncommon for the police to learn about one sexual assault report, only to be inundated later by a number of other complaints against the same doctor. But it takes that first courageous individual to start the process.