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Sex charges against doctors are laxly dealt with, study finds

A nationwide investigation finds widespread sexual abuse by doctors, and systemic failures in oversight and response that perpetuated it.

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    Erin Vance said she was sexually assaulted by an Oregon physician while she was under anesthesia. A nationwide investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper showed doctors in every state have been accused of sexual abuse but state regulators and hospitals frequently cloak cases in secrecy, with accused doctors continuing to treat patients.
    (Ryon Horne/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
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Patients are sexually abused by doctors with disturbing frequency, and a combination of weak oversight and minimal consequences have allowed known offenders to continue to practice. Details of this systemic problem were revealed in an series of stories published Wednesday by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), which conducted a sweeping investigation analyzing 100,000 disciplinary orders against doctors filed since 1999.

Of the 3,100 doctors that the newspaper identified as having been sanctioned for sexual misconduct, 2,400 of them had a violation involving a patient and half still have active medical licenses. These figure represents only a fraction of the actual accusations of sexual abuse by doctors, the newspaper says, because these cases are often dealt with in secrecy or ambiguity by state regulations and hospital officials.

These cases that AJC identified range in severity from inappropriate comments, to rape, to doctors who had hundreds of victims over decades, making them some of the nation’s worst alleged sexual predators.

As they sifted through the nationwide history of assaults and abuse with the help of a computer program, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution team also found that many cases were perpetuated by lenient medical boards, hospital officials who did not report complaints, or reduced charges from prosecutors.

One of ways that the abuse by doctors is perpetuated, the investigation found, parallels a pattern found by The Boston Globe in the Catholic Church abuses and the predation by private schools teachers: allowing sexual abusers to move on from their position in lieu of charges, enabling them to continue to work.

AJC used the case of Dr. William Almon to exemplify this. Throughout his 30 year career in Georgia, Dr. Almon sexually violated “extremely vulnerable female patients — a suicidal soldier, jail inmates, a mentally ill woman and a child of 14 — and every time was effectively given a pass,” writes Danny Robbins, the reporter whose initial findings launched the investigation.

In each of Almon's jobs at an Army base, a prison, and a primary care center, his abuses came to light, but in each case he was allowed to move on. After he was accused of raping two women (at the primary care center where officials knew his background when he was hired) he was investigated and was able to file a plea and receive probation, not jail time.

The Georgia Composite Medical Board then allowed him to continue practicing with the condition that he met certain requirements, like boundary and ethics training.

Completing recovery treatments has allowed some doctors whose charges were brought before regulatory medical boards to return to practice. And while the newspaper found some level of tolerance for sexual misconduct in every state, this was more pronounced in some.

In Georgia and Kansas, for example, the AJC found that two-thirds of doctors who received public discipline were able to return to practice. The ratio was even higher in Alabama and Minnesota, where 3 in 4 and 4 in 5 doctors resumed practice, respectively.

Some current and former members of medical boards interviewed by AJC held the view that allowing doctors to return to work was not bad practice, taking stock of the investment that each doctor represents.

"Let me say that it takes a lot of money to educate a physician," Vann Craig, the former executive director of the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure, told the AJC last year. "If they can be safely monitored and rehabilitated, I don't see why they can't come back from drugs, alcohol or sexual misconduct."

The American Medical Association condemns physician sexual misconduct and say consent is no defense, but have not been vocal on the issue. 

The AJC plans a follow up report next month, offering not just reporting, but also resources. Viewers of the online publication can view information for their own state as well as recommendations for those who have experienced abuse or want to research their physician.

For those who have experience assault by a doctor, there are many options, including calling the police, state medical board, or hospital, as well as reaching out to support and advocacy organizations such as Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP )and RAINN, as well as rape crisis centers.

For those who want to find out more about their doctors, they can reach out to the state medical authorities who license physicians, as well as sites like docinfo.org and healthgrades.com, which have search tools for doctors’ files.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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