What You Need To Know About Sexual Abuse By Doctors, Because It’s A Lot More Common Than You Think

Americans place great trust in their doctors, which is pretty understandable considering the towering pedestal upon which society places the medical field and the fact that doctors quite literally save lives on the daily. But according to a new investigative report by The Atlanta-Journal Constitution (AJC), in far too many cases, this trust is betrayed. Sexual abuse by doctors is so much more common than most people think despite being perpetually eclipsed by sex scandals emerging from the Catholic Church or politicians.

And the most alarming fact, aside from how easily doctors found guilty of abusing patients are able to continue practicing medicine, is that all the alarming statistics out there are frankly just the tip of the iceberg, because sexual abuse could so easily take place without patients ever even knowing. According to The AJC:

“It could be anyone. Some patients were sedated when they were sexually assaulted. Others didn’t realize at first what had happened because the doctor improperly touched them or photographed them while pretending to do a legitimate medical exam.”

Dozens of physicians and gynecologists featured in The AJC’s report were individually found guilty of abusing anywhere from 20 to 1,000 patients of all ages. The AJC analyzed more than 100,000 documents alleging sexual misconduct by thousands of doctors from as far back as 1999. Of the 2,400 medical professionals penalized for sexual abuses involving their patients, half are still practicing to this day.

The investigative report offered multiple disturbing examples of sexual abuse by doctors, including one Delaware-based pediatrician indicted on 471 charges of molesting, raping, and abusing children in 2010, who drugged patients with lollipops and videotaped his crimes. Some of his victims were just months old. It outlined cases of doctors across all fields and all states around the nation who fondled, molested, exposed themselves to, or assaulted patients, some conscious, others not.

The deeply troubling phenomenon of sexual abuse by doctors is either brushed off as a rarity not worth the general public’s concern, or is simply unknown. Yet research over the past decades reveals it’s far more pervasive than most people believe. A dated study published in 1992 found roughly 10 percent of all medical specialists who cared for adult patients had performed sexual acts on their adult patients, and there’s reason to believe this number has only increased. The number of sex-related offenses that were actually disciplined increased from 42 in 1989 to a staggering 147 in 1996, according to a 1998 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Tuberculin Skin Test
CREDIT: BSIP/Getty Images

Also according to the American Medical Association (AMA), between 5 and 10 percent of psychiatrists alone reported sexual contact with patients, a number understood as the result of dramatic underreporting. A study of Ontario, Canada in the ’80s found a staggering 25 percent of health care providers who had been legally charged with patient sexual contact were psychiatrists.

Physicians disciplined for sexual abuse were most likely to work in psychiatry, child psychiatry, obstetrics, and gynecology, proving those most vulnerable to sexual exploitation from their physicians are, predictably enough, those suffering from mental illness, children, and women. This is backed up by a study by Canadian researchers that found 8.7 percent of all individuals victimized between 1989 and 1996 were under 14 years of age and 80 percent of patients subjected to sexual contact were adult women.

According to the same study, male providers were responsible for 91 percent of the sexual contact, but that’s not to say female doctors are never the abusers, and men never the victims. Women and children might be most vulnerable to sexual abuse, and more commonly preyed on than any other groups, but no group is immune. The AJC’s report referenced one New Mexico-based female doctor who performed genital exams she said were for screening on patients who were under anesthesia and hadn’t given consent.

In March 1997, 39.9 percent of physicians disciplined for sex-related offenses that took place between 1989 and 1994 were still licensed to practice. There’s no simple explanation for why doctors who sexually exploit their patients are able to continue practicing medicine and continue abusing patients. For starters, as cases of sexual abuse so often do, many go unreported because victims are too “intimidated, confused or embarrassed,” as per The AJC, and “fear that no one will take their word over a doctor’s,” or aren’t even aware they were abused.

In the case of Texas-based neurologist Dr. Philip Leonard, despite the fact that 17 women filed reports of sexual misconduct against him, a lack of forensic evidence and his acquittal in court when the jury questioned the credibility of just one of his alleged victims has enabled him to continue practicing to this day, without any restrictions. The medical board overlooking the situation reportedly reached a settlement, which allows Leonard to continue his work in order to avoid “costly appeals,” and this could be the case for many doctors found guilty of sexual abuse who are allowed to continue practicing medicine.

In another case, Dr. Jacob Ward of Atlanta pleaded guilty to molesting a female patient, and was arrested and sentenced to two years of probation by the Georgia medical board, and required to be supervised whenever he attended female patients. But prior to this, two female patients had reported being abused by Ward, and the medical board responded by merely writing a “personal and confidential” letter to the doctor expressing “concern regarding exams and patients of the opposite sex.” 

This reflects how, in many cases regarding doctors and sexual abuse, “physicians who engage in sexual misconduct are treated or disciplined in private, keeping patients in the dark,” according to The AJC. Warnings and any disciplinary action tend to be handled privately, which not only explains how guilty doctors manage to incur relatively light sentences that still allow them to practice medicine, but also how public awareness of sexually exploitative doctors remains so minimal.

The public’s lack of awareness regarding the issue is so problematic because the best way to defend yourself from sexual abuse by a medical professional is awareness — from knowing what’s appropriate during a breast exam to being able to identify sexually inappropriate comments that aren’t medically relevant.

For starters, while there is no single way to perform a breast exam, Dr. Erica Hinz, an OB/GYN based at NYU Langone Medical Center, told The AJC doctors are “taught the art of draping the patient” in order to “expose the patient as minimally as possible.” Additionally, the exam only requires women to undress from the waist up. Doctors shouldn’t watch patients undress, or sit behind them at any time during the exam, and should be fully visible to patients throughout.

Hospital examination room equipped with bed, computer, and tray of phials
CREDIT: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Breast exams aren’t supposed to be particularly comfortable experiences, but Dr. Hinz told The AJC it’s still important for patients to “speak up” if they feel they’re being violated.

A 2013 factsheet by the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence notes that other signs of a doctor overstepping their bounds include “being secretive or non-transparent about patient care, scheduling of certain patients, communication with patients, medications prescribed for or dispensed to certain patients,” or “sharing or asking about personal or intimate information that is not medically relevant.”

The factsheet also notes that patients should trust their instincts rather than just assume a physician would never hurt you, and offered this advice for documenting and potentially reporting one’s experiences:

“Write down any interaction with your physician that was (or felt) abusive, manipulative, or unethical. Include the date and time of the appointment/interaction, as well as a detailed account of what happened. Consider reporting any abusive incident or behavior to the police and/or your state medical board.”

Medical records staff pulling a patient record
CREDIT: John Greim/Getty Images

The takeaway here isn’t that you shouldn’t trust your doctor, and that all medical care providers are evil sex offenders. Rather, it’s that you should understand the threat does exist, has affected a substantial amount of patients, and, as highly respected as the profession is, doctors, like all human beings, aren’t inherently above doing unspeakable things just because they have a medical degree.

As David Clohessy, the executive director of SNAP, a support organization for victims of sexual abuse, told The AJC, “Crimes are crimes, no matter who commits them.” Sexual abuse by medical professionals is something we could all potentially be vulnerable to, and the first step to protecting oneself is being aware.