The doctor-patient relationship is paramount to our health and well-being. Our health, and sometimes our lives, depend on our doctor’s genuine concern that we are well - physically and emotionally. We place our lives and our trust in our doctor. When a doctor sexually exploits or abuses a patient, the emotional toll is immense.
I recently did a web search to see if there was statistics on this type of abuse. I couldn’t find any hard statistics. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of psychiatrists reported some type of sexual contact with patients and, however, this was assumed to be underreported as the research used physician self-reporting. It was assumed that doctors in other fields was about the same. This number doesn’t take into account the many patients who have been abused and have not reported this invasion of their body.
Sexual misconduct by doctors falls into three main categories:
- A romantic relationship with a former or current patient
- Gaining sexual access by indicating it is a part of treatment
- Sexual assault
All of these are considered unethical by the AMA. Some doctors, the AMA states, have a "one-time" incident - a time when they didn’t properly manage the inevitable attraction to a patient. Most, however, "use or exploit their patients’ vulnerabilities for their own gratification."  During my web search, there were countless headlines similar to, “Sex-abuse complaints against”., “Doctor accused of sexually abusing”, and "Doctor sentenced to…for sexual assault." Even though these headlines are popping up, there are so many more cases, those that live in the shadows, afraid of saying anything, or worse yet, being dismissed as if it was nothing.
One of the Health Guides here at HealthCentral recently shared her story about physican sexual abuse. She wants to make sure it is understood that she went to two different plastic surgeons - her "real plastic surgeon" was not involved - it was a physician she went to for one follow-up visit who, in her words, "sexualized her exam." She has told her story because she wants you to know, this can happen to anyone. This is not your fault.
Our Health Guide went through a tummy-tuck after losing a large amount of weight. She began her journey as a size 24W. At the time of the tummy-tuck, she was wearing a "S." What a phenomenal accomplishment The tummy-tuck was not just a medical procedure, it was a celebration of her weight loss. The physician who performed the surgery, in her words, "is one of the finest plastic surgeons in the nation." Unfortunately, he was out of state so when she needed a quick follow-up exam, she found a plastic surgeon in her area.
The doctor, who she had never met before the exam, used his power and her vulnerability to touch her in places that didn’t need to be touched. He wasn’t seedy or a doctor in some back alley. He had a beautiful office, he advertises with a well designed website. He was charming, interested, attentive. He did all the right things…until he did all the wrong things.
And while we have all seen the headlines where doctors are convicted of sexual assault on their patients, these are the rare cases. Too often, no one wants to do anything. The AMA states. "physicians should be particularly vigilant in exposing colleagues who commit sexual misconduct." Four states have mandatory reporting laws - four out of fifty! In the case of our Health Guide, her regular physician chose to ignore her, dismissing her rendition of the event and was unwilling to "expose" a colleague.
The Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) states, "…sexual misconduct will not be tolerated," and State Medical Boards should "take prompt and decisive action against any licensee found to have participated in such conduct." Each case, they state, "should be investigated." The FSMB lays out clear guidelines for investigating each complaint and recommends specific discipline measures.
If you believe you have been the victim of sexual misconduct by your doctor, talk to someone. This abuse, as other abuse, can leave lasting scars if you don’t address it. Report it. Get care for yourself. Talk to others.
TELL - Therapy Exploitation Link Line
RAINN- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
"Addressing Sexual Boundaries," 2006, May, Staff Writer, Federation of State Medical Boards
"Sexual Misconduct in the Practice of Medicine," American Medical Association
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.