Sexual Abuse in the Medical Community

Sexual abuse can be an issue in any industry or area of life, but one of the most devastating places where it can occur is at the doctor’s office. A recent investigation at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed sexual abuse within the medical community is common and could rival the abuse that occurred within the Catholic Church.

Reporters from AJC found a number of parallels between the medical community abuse and the abuse within the church. Unfortunately, what they learned might be just the tip of the iceberg because it’s impossible to gather accurate numbers on just how many doctors have molested patients.

According to the AJC reporters, data is incomplete for several reasons: Many patients feel too ashamed to admit abuse, while others are unsure how to define abuse in the patient-doctor relationship. A survey conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops showed between four and six percent of priests had committed some type of sexual abuse. Data gathered from anonymous, volunteer sources who were doctors show similar, if not higher, results.

Confidentiality a Problem, Doctors Protected

The other factor, pointed out by AJC reporters, that plays a role in the incidence of doctor-patient sexual abuse is the confidentiality of the relationship. Similar to how it does within the church, secrecy is a big part of complaints of sexual misconduct by doctors. Doctors are isolated, just as priests are, protecting them from the usual criminal ramifications of abuse allegations – and making it easier for them to abuse again. This system favors doctors, but it’s also important for the medical community and disciplinary system to take confidentiality seriously. The secrecy is also intended to protect the abused as much as the abuser, but this backfires in cases of serial abusers.

Things are taken a step further though, beyond protecting patients’ privacy. For instance, as reported by the AJC, in Colorado, a patient is not permitted to return to the medical board to request follow-up information after filing a complaint. The system has been criticized for protecting doctors far more than patients, and according to some medical board officials “… by law a patient’s confidentiality in the matter belongs not to her, but to her doctor.”

Leaving Abusive Doctors in Service – for the Greater Good?

According to AJC reporters, board officials point out secrecy ensures people will continue to file complaints, confident their identities are protected. These officials believe more abuse would occur if reports of inappropriate behavior were made public. They also point out amidst the continuing doctor shortages, it’s important to rehabilitate physicians and put them back into service, aware their behavior was inappropriate and able to prevent further abuse. In essence, the board believes protecting a doctor’s identity and “rehabbing” that doctor is for the greater good.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in addition to calling attention to the problem in the medical community, also wanted to let patients know what they can do to protect themselves. To ensure patients understand what is considered abusive in the doctor-patient relationship, they have created a guide detailing appropriate and inappropriate behavior that can be found here.