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A group representing state medical boards nationwide is calling for more aggressive actions to address the growing number of allegations emerging involving sexual misconduct by physicians.
In an editorial posted March 29 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), members of the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) disclosed that a series of recommendations were made to members last year, following a review of practices and how state medical boards typically handle reports of sexual assault, abuse and inappropriate conduct. The members indicated the group called for better enforcement, transparency, and reporting requirements.
The recommendations note that in 2018, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine found sexual harassment in the medical and scientific communities is a growing problem, with more than 50% of women faculty and staff members, and 20% to 50% of female students reporting having been sexually harassed in academia. State medical boards also report there were 251 disciplinary actions taken against physicians for sexual misconduct violations in 2019. However, the FSMB warns that number may be higher due to medical boards often classifying them as unprofessional conduct, physician-patient boundary issues, or moral unfitness.
The FSMB is now calling on the boards to better categorize these incidents so the scope of the sexual misconduct problems can be better understood.
According to the FSMB’s own review, in 2019 there were 1,638 state medical board disciplinary actions linked to professionalism violations. These included 146 cases of sexual misconduct and 105 actions involving sexual boundary issues. However, there were also 821 cases classified as unprofessional conduct, 99 cases of professional misconduct, 72 cases of moral unfitness, and 63 cases of physician-patient boundary issues. It is unknown how many of those other cases could have potentially involved sexual misconduct as well.
“State boards need to take swift action, especially when the continued practice of medicine by a licensee constitutes a danger to the public,” the FSMB recommends. “When that risk is perceived as sufficiently high, as with sexual assault, actions should include summary (immediate) suspension or revocation of a physician’s medical license and notification of law enforcement, both while an investigation is ongoing and as part of a final adjudication.”
In addition, the group called more transparency, through better access to licensure and disciplinary data in order to make certain the public is informed about their physicians, and has made data collected by state medical boards available to the public on a free website.
The group also called on members of the medical profession to acknowledge they have a professional duty to report such misconduct by their peers. In some states, failure to do so can result in disciplinary actions and fines.
The FSMB called on the medical profession to promote a culture where any sexual misconduct is not tolerated.
“Such behavior undermines professional attainment, and when that behavior is tolerated, overtly or tacitly, it reduces the likelihood of bystander reporting and erodes professional culture in a patient-centered system,” the FSMB concluded. “Sustaining this effort across the entire profession and in every clinical setting, both inpatient and outpatient, will be critical to maintaining the public’s trust.”
Recent Sexual Assault Claims Against Physicians Who Allegedly Abused Patients
The recommendations come amid a number of recent high-profile sexual misconduct cases involving doctors accused or convicted of assaulting and molesting patients.
The University of Southern California just recently approved of more than $1 billion in settlements for hundreds of women allegedly sexually abused by a former gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall, over the course of decades, before he was allowed to retire amid the allegations.
And in 2013, Johns Hopkins University was hit with multiple class action lawsuits filed on behalf of former patients of Dr. Nikita Levy, a gynecologist and obstetrician who allegedly photographed and videotaped patients with hidden cameras during examinations.
Levy died of apparent suicide in February 2013 after being confronted with the allegations.
Perhaps the most well known case, however, involved former Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
According to testimony presented by more than 150 women and girls, Nassar sexually molested young female gymnasts during medical examinations since at least the early 1990s, in his role as a team physician and assistant professor at MSU, and as a USA Gymnastics Medical Coordinator.
Nassar will spend the rest of his life in jail, having received a federal sentence of 60 years on child pornography charges. He has also received two additional sentences; including one for 40 to 175 years, and another of 40 to 125 years from verdicts in two Michigan courts.
The University of Michigan paid $500 million to settle lawsuits filed by Nassar’s victims in 2018.