Social attitudes about sexual misconduct have changed, but doctors remain a 'baffling exception'

A physician in scrubs in a hospital hallway
An investigation found 450 cases of physicians who were brought before medical regulators or courts for sexual misconduct or crimes in 2016 and 2017. (Getty/NanoStockk)

Despite the #MeToo movement and society’s growing intolerance of sexual misconduct, the system for disciplining abusive doctors is still flawed, an investigation found.

While social attitudes have changed dramatically in the last year, a national investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found doctors accused of sexual misconduct are still being allowed to practice.

The newspaper said it uncovered 450 cases of physicians who were brought before medical regulators or courts for sexual misconduct or crimes in 2016 and 2017. In nearly half the cases, the physicians kept their medical licenses whether the victims were patients or employees.

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The investigation was a follow-up to a Journal-Constitution series in 2016 that looked at doctors and sexual abuse, which found more than 2,400 doctors who have been sanctioned for sexual misconduct involving patients since 1999. 

The newspaper said despite the sentencing of Larry Nassar, M.D., the former doctor for the Olympics gymnastics team who was found guilty of sex abuse, there has been no change to the system that disciplines doctors. Nassar was sentenced to serve the rest of his life in prison after more than 200 girls and women said they were sexually violated by the doctor.

“Doctors benefit from a system where victims are often not believed, criminal charges for physician sex abuse are rare and doctor-dominated medical licensing boards tend to offer rehabilitation and a return to practice, the AJC investigation found,” the newspaper reported, calling doctors a “baffling exception” to what has occurred in other professions.

However, the healthcare industry has not been entirely immune to the #MeToo movement. For instance, the failure of two Fenway Community Health Center leaders to address complaints of sexual harassment and bullying against a prominent Boston doctor who worked at the center cost them their positions late last year. The doctor was forced to resign from the center, as well as stepping down from positions at two prominent institutions.

Healthcare organizations are advised to take heed of the lessons learned from these public cases because they can face repercussions for trying to sweep allegations of sexual misconduct under the rug. Hospitals and practices must have policies in place to for patients and employees to reporter concerns and be willing to investigate all complaints, including those against physicians, the investigation concluded.

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