The American Medical Association is looking at a new a harassment policy that would protect attendees at major events, like its annual House of Delegates this week.
The proposed policy (PDF) is one of many items up for discussion at the annual meeting, though no sessions (PDF) touch on preventing or cracking down on sexual misconduct by doctors against patients, an issue that was the focus of a newspaper investigation just under a year ago.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s deep dive into the issue suggested that many cases go unreported, as doctors are expected to self-report and many steps of the reporting process are opaque and hard to understand.
The AMA’s Code of Ethics does include provisions that target sexual misconduct, but in the context of a romantic relationship between a doctor and a patient. The AMA reaffirmed its policies to prevent sexual misconduct at its meeting last year, shortly before the Atlanta newspaper’s investigation was published, said R.J. Mills, a media relations coordinator for the AMA, in response to the Journal-Constitution’s original article about their upcoming meeting.
Lisa McGiffert, manager of the Consumer Union’s Safe Patient Project, told the newspaper that the AMA’s lack of attention on the sexual abuse of patients shows that the group is more likely to address someone else’s problems than their own. “They’re real masters at deflecting responsibility,” she said.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D, a bioethicist at New York University Langone Medical Center, said that the AMA should be commended for taking steps to protect members at its programs, but that this policy should serve as a springboard for future discussions on sexual misconduct more broadly.
In a statement issued to the newspaper, AMA Board of Trustees Chair Patrice A. Harris, M.D., said the group takes sexual misconduct allegations seriously, and it has “zero tolerance” for harassment or abuse. The proposed policy would expand the AMA’s approach of respectful conduct beyond the walls of member facilities, she said.
The AMA said in its report on the anti-harassment policy that it had “recently” become aware that there was no policy in place for its events, but McGiffert said that the move suggests they have gotten complaints about misconduct. The policy, if approved, would offer a clear definition of misconduct and provide avenues for members at events to report such behavior.
The newspaper’s previous investigation found that sexual misconduct allegations are not particularly uncommon, as 2,400 doctors have been accused of sexual misconduct toward patients since 1999. States, too, could do more to protect patients from sexual abuse. Another investigation from the Atlanta newspaper found that few states have comprehensive laws to protect patients from sexual misconduct.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the AMA had reaffirmed its policies to prevent sexual misconduct at its meeting last June.