Few Physicians Faced Medical Board Sanctions After Sexual Abuse


By Alyssa Rege

Following the publication of the investigation into Harvey Weinstein, top Hollywood executives, prominent journalists and politicians have been forced out of or resigned from their positions in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct. However, the medical industry has been more reticent to act on similar accusations made against physicians or other medical professionals, according to an investigation.

Physicians disciplined for sexual misconduct allegations often face a short suspension paired with mandatory therapy to treat their sexually abusive behavior as a symptom of illness or addiction, according to the report. Despite decades of complaints about how the disciplinary system works and the recent #MeToo campaign, little has changed in terms of how physicians are disciplined by state medical boards for engaging in sexually coercive behavior.

Here are six findings from the investigation.

1. Nationwide, the majority of physicians accused of sexual misconduct are not subject to a medical license review. In 2017, roughly 66 percent of physicians sanctioned by their employers or who paid a settlement as a result of sexual misconduct claims never faced medical board discipline, according to a recent study.

2. A second study conducted by the nonprofit Public Citizen in 2016 found of the 253 physicians reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank for having been sanctioned by their respective hospitals or healthcare organizations for allegations of sexual misconduct or paid a settlement for similar accusations, 177 physicians (70 percent) were not sanctioned by their respective state medical boards for their alleged conduct.

3. Current guidelines from the Federation of State Physician Health Programs, which represents physician rehabilitation programs in 47 states, are largely silent regarding methods to treat sexual misconduct, and describe the behavior as "a cause of impairment" in a physician. Such programs are also meant to be "nondisciplinary," per the FSPHP's guidelines.

Linda Bresnahan, executive director of FSPHP, explained that the organization's guidelines are being rewritten and should not be applied to sexual misbehavior. The federation said roughly 50 percent of physician rehab programs nationwide accept physicians accused of sexual misconduct.

4. Some state medical boards cite administrative law judges for preventing them from seeking harsher punishments against physicians accused of sexual misconduct. However, a Florida administrative judge explained that state medical boards may seek to override administrative law decisions they disagree with.

5. Variations in physicians' punishments for engaging in such behavior are also a cause for concern nationwide. Numerous factors, including hospitals' disinclination to report abusive physicians and shortfalls in states' abilities to flag certain physicians for future employers, skew in favor of more lenient punishments for physicians.

"There's an institutional bias on the part of the medical review board," a medical malpractice attorney from Utah said. "They're generally doctors, they work very hard to get their medical degrees and they're very, very disinclined to yank the license of another doctor. The primary focus is: Let's take care of the doctor and help him get through this problem."

6. Physicians accused of sexual misconduct are also typically not required to apologize for their behavior, or even acknowledge they acted inappropriately, to keep their medical license. A spokesperson for the Florida Medical Board explained that the medical boards "do not have the legal authority to force a physician to speak or place a gag order on them to prevent them from doing so."


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