By Steven Reynolds - Newsweek ME - 20/01/2024 - [USA]
With the Hippocratic Oath underpinning every aspect of their careers, physicians and healthcare professionals are in a unique position of trust and closeness with the patients they treat. When they betray that oath and commit acts of sexual violence against the patients, the ramifications are profound.
High profile cases include U.S. women’s gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who was charged with 265 counts of sexual assault, and George Tyndall, a U.S.C. gynecologist accused of assaulting hundreds of patients spanning decades. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, advocates for transparency and support for survivors who come forward.
The level of trust implicit in the physician-patient relationship is often what can also lead to prolonging of sexual abuse circumstances.
Many patients may not understand what is or is not required as part of an exam, but have confidence in their provider that the right tests or examinations are being performed for the right reasons. Experts also cite the power dynamic between physicians and those in their care, noting that patients often defer to their doctor even in the face of doubt. Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN, encourages patients to understand guidelines for how to file complaints as well as the importance of trusting their own instincts if they believe an exam, or portion of an exam, seems wrong.
“Sexual abuse often thrives in environments where perpetrators are in a position of trust,” says Berkowitz. “In medical settings, you have an expectation of trust in your provider. It’s a dynamic that traps too many people, and we want survivors of physician sexual abuse to know it is not their fault and they are not alone.”
Berkowitz underscores the need for transparency and patient awareness when it comes to what is proper and improper physician behaviour. One way RAINN assists with this is the provision of guidelines for what patients can and should expect as proper physician behaviour and recommendations for what to do if they find themselves in a compromising situation.
A recent study demonstrated the ongoing prevalence of such issues and the inadequate response by the medical community.
Data show that less than 1% of doctors have been penalized for sexual conduct, in comparison to 3.4% of anonymous physicians who have admitted to inappropriate behaviours. “Part of the reason it keeps happening is that there’s not a lot of transparency in the process,” said Stefan Turkheimer, vice president of public policy for RAINN. “The only time you ever hear about [physician sexual assault] is when there are so many cases that it forces it out in the open.”
Once it is in the open, there’s a much better chance that action will be taken. Of 101 cases of sexual abuse in medicine reviewed in one study, 74% of practitioners stopped practicing medicine, while 87% of perpetrators lost or surrendered their medical licenses.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact Dignity4Patients, whose helpline is open Monday to Thursday 10am to 4pm.