White Coat Betrayal: Ending Sexual Assault in Medicine

February 10, 2018
By Dr. Sherry A. Ross | Originally published Jan 24, 2018 on U.S. News & World Report

Did you know that when a male doctor cares for a female patient in his office, it’s customary – also known as “standard of practice” – for a nurse or medical assistant to be present when he’s performing the exam?

While the “Pussy Posse” – the Harvey Weinstein’s, David O. Russell’s, Brett Ratner’s and Matt Lauer’s of the world – dominate the headlines, it’s important to add to the conversation instances of sexual abuse that rarely end up on the front page. As a women’s health advocate and practicing OB-GYN for 25 years, I want to point out that some doctors, especially male gynecologists, pediatricians and anesthesiologists and psychiatrists, have raped, fondled and molested patients of all ages. Finally, the conversation is getting started bacause of Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar. He’s the former team doctor for U.S.A. Gymnastics, and he was sentenced to 60 years in prison on child pornography (37,000 images!) charges. His sentence has yet to be handed down to him for the 10 counts and growing of sexual molestation from former members of the U.S national gymnastics team and Michigan State softball players.

I’ve heard story upon story about sexual misconduct from my patients, including inappropriate touching and sexual misconduct during their gynecologic exams when they were young women. The doctor-patient relationship and unspoken trust is the primary principle to our health and wellness, and experiences like these have a long-term negative effect on a woman and the way she takes care of her physical health during her lifetime. Many of these victims have post-traumatic stress disorders that immobilize them indefinitely.

Imagine nervously sitting on an exam room table, completely naked except for a light paper gown. You’re waiting for your gynecologist to walk into the room to perform your first well woman exam. You may be thinking about how you selected this doctor from the list your insurance provider presented so you could take responsibility for your reproductive health and get a prescription for birth control. You may know nothing about the man about to enter the examining room other than the fact that he wears a “white coat,” which inspires your trust, just like Superman’s cape, Batman’s mask or a police officer’s uniform.

Then there’s a knock at the door, and he enters the room. At first, everything is routine as he takes a brief medical history and asks some basic questions about your sex life. His concern about your boyfriend practicing safe sex and wearing a condom further encourages you to relax until the hand he has casually placed on your shoulder moves to your breasts. You’ve never had a breast exam before, and somehow it seems wrong the way he fondles and caresses you, his eyes filled with pleasure. You’re shocked and don’t know what to do when he leans in closer to do your first pelvic exam, and you feel his erect penis rubbing against your thigh. Internally you’re screaming for help, because although you’re new to this, every instinct is telling you that something isn’t right. A short time later, the “good” doctor hands you a new birth control prescription and says, “I will see you back in one year for your annual well woman exam.”

Another victim I talked to had a history of recurrent miscarriages, which destroyed her relationship with her husband. The married doctor who was managing her care started to “comfort” her, emotionally at first and then physically. They started a sexual relationship while she was still married and going through infertility treatments. She ended the relationship, and the shame caused her to spiral into a deeper depression that ultimately required she be hospitalized after a failed suicide attempt.

I’ve heard about so many doctors whose behavior was inappropriate and downright illegal, but trying to get any hard facts or statistics about doctor sexual misconduct is very difficult. I want to out this growing list of sexual predators and empower women who have been sexually abused at the hands of doctors to step forward and stop the cycle. Sexual assault victims experience denial, shame, betrayal and ongoing physical, emotional and mental distress. If they don’t come forward, these doctors will never face any consequences.

According to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, “half of the more than 2,400 doctors sanctioned since 1999 for sexual misconduct involving patients still have active medical licenses.” A nationwide investigation by the AJC published in July 2016 found widespread sexual abuse by doctors – from OB-GYNs committing rape and anesthesiologists taking advantage of sedated patients to pediatricians molesting children.

As Dr. Howard Markel recently noted, “The need for physicians to make a formal warrant of diligent, moral, and ethical conduct in the service of their patients may be stronger than ever.” We cannot tolerate business as usual among sexual predators in the medical field. It’s brave and inspirational to see Aly Raisman and women in Hollywood come forward and build a community around #metoo, but now what? What are the next steps in an action plan to prosecute these medical sexual predators to the full extent of the law?

How to Take Action

If you feel that you’ve been touched inappropriately by a health care provider:

  • Do not remain silent.
  • Talk to someone who is trustworthy about the incident.
  • Contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline 800-656-HOPE (4673).
  • Report the incident to the state medical board and create a police report.
  • Contract SNAP, a support and advocacy organization for people sexually abused by doctors, therapists, clergy and others.
  • Find a therapist you can confide in who has the credentials and experience to help you deal with trauma.

Hollywood directors? Actors? Priests? Doctors? In my opinion, deviants who hide behind the label of caring professionals are the most maniacal and psychologically destructive to women. We need to work together, change the culture and make it stop. I would like to see a law passed where violating a patient would result in revoking his or her medical license, jail time and being forever identified as a sex offender on state registries. As the Pussy Posse and other famous sexual predators are exposed, we need to take this opportunity to shine a bright light on physician sex offenders who have easy access to women in vulnerable situations. Be silent no more. Join the conversation at #Metoodoc and #stepupAMA.


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