Unwelcome, Unwanted, Unemployed! Physician Sexual Misconduct Will Not Be Tolerated

State Boards are making it clear that physician sexual misconduct will not be tolerated. Stronger guidelines now call for physician’s licenses to be immediately suspended or revoked for sexual misconduct. The guidelines also provide clear direction for health care systems that are committed to promoting a culture of establishing and maintaining patient trust.

Tragically, too many patients continue to suffer physician sexual abuse and harassment.

In 2019 alone, 251 disciplinary actions were handed down to physicians in response to complaints of “sexual misconduct.” In response to the rise of such disturbing reports, the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) recently published guidelines concerning sexual misconduct, including harassment and abuse, by physicians toward their patients.[1]

These new guidelines are extremely important, as the relationship between a physician and the patient is already an imbalanced one. Patients are in a vulnerable position where they must share personal information and often submit to physical exams by a person with superior medical knowledge. When a physician takes advantage of this vulnerability, it can often lead to trauma.

The new FSMB guidelines mandate that state boards take swift action, particularly when the actions of a physician demonstrate a continued danger to the public. In high-risk situations such as sexual assault, the guidelines suggest that board actions should be quicker and harsher and may include immediate suspension (or possibly revocation) of a physician’s license, as well as notification to law enforcement. Less risky harassment, such as inappropriate online communication, should be taken just as seriously, but dealt with in a different manner. For example, the board may end up requiring that the physician undergo continuing education surrounding professional boundaries and behavior. If the physician can return to his or her practice, the board will closely monitor him or her. “Practice monitors,” people approved by the board, may be required to accompany physicians during encounters with patients, with the cost for these monitors falling on the physician.

The goal of the new FSMB guidelines is clear: establish and maintain patient trust. The board’s goal is to promote a culture within the medical profession in which unprofessional and/or sexual misconduct in any form will not be tolerated.

Bottom Line: If you hear anything — report, investigate, and follow up. These claims are not to be taken lightly.[2]

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[1] Federation of State Medical Boards. Physician Sexual Misconduct: Report and Recommendations of the FSMB Workgroup on Physician Sexual Misconduct. May 2, 2020. Accessed September 10, 2020. https://www.fsmb.org/siteassets/advocacy/policies/report-of-workgroup-on-sexual-misconduct-adopted-version.pdf

[2] W&B gratefully acknowledges the drafting of this Think Piece by our 2021 Summer Intern, Ms. Clare H Reynolds.

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