Sexual abuse stories make headlines, especially when they involve the clergy and medical professionals. Doctors and other health care professionals who are accused of violating their oath and patient trust, who may have crossed over that thin line, tend to lose their licenses; and many even go to jail.
Some, unfortunately, get away with overt sexual impropriety for years. Some are never caught or even accused. Some are even doing it today. It may have even happened to you.
This story happened to a very good friend of mine. While I trust my friend and gave testimony in court on his character, there are always those lingering doubts. Did he violate this trust behind the closed doors of an examination room?
Perhaps the only people who know the real truth are the two people that were actually there. One went to jail and lost everything…professional license, family, and savings account. The other bought a new house and car with the malpractice settlement. If he truly did the things he was accused of, then justice was served. If he was the victim of false accusations, then that person is going to have a lot of explaining to do in front of God someday.
The medical encounter is a very sacred relationship. Patients not only bare their bodies, but they bare their souls. It is a privilege to care for others, but it is also an awesome responsibility.
After my friend went to jail, I was so demoralized that I decided to leave the practice of medicine and go back to full-time medical education. This event changed me as well. I have returned to clinical practice again, after several years as a university professor, partly because I grew weary of whiny 30-year-old masters students, but mostly because I really missed clinical practice. I don’t mind the whining of two-year olds.
Patients can misinterpret examination components if the medical provider does not explain what they are doing, and why. For instance, a breast examination includes expressing the nipple for discharge or blood. If you don’t tell the patient you are going to squeeze their nipple (and why), you could be in big trouble.
In my recent Blog about “patients as sheep“, Carolyn wrote about her experience with her endocrinologist. He insisted that she be disrobed above the waist, in a paper gown open in the front, for a thyroid exam (neck). She also felt uncomfortable with the doctor’s intimate demeanor. She refused to disrobe on a subsequent visit.
Disrobing for a thyroid exam is not necessary. Carolyn listened to that sixth sense that women possess when situations are not what they should be. She stood up to this medical icon. Although she may not know it, but Carolyn may have changed the way this endocrinologist treats women in the future. She did not misinterpret those signals.
My friend was accused of being sexually inappropriate during a seemingly-simple back examination for a work-related injury. I won’t delve into the complex accusations of this case, but the judge (not a jury trial) felt that my friend did cross over the line, and used his professional status to intimidate a patient for his own sexual needs.
My friend felt that he was just being thorough, and that he was set up in some elaborate malpractice insurance scheme for money? The real answers may never be known. In my heart, I felt he was innocent, but I also know that he made some terrible mistakes in judgment. It was his word against the patient, since he performed an intimate exam without a nurse being present to chaperone.
He was sentenced to 7 years in prison. The patient (and her husband) was subsequently awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in the civil suit.
He has since completed his prison time and now works as a janitor at a bank. While in prison, he developed prostate cancer. He has gone on with his life, but a very different life than he imagined…a life that changed during one twenty-minute appointment. He will never don that white coat again.
A PA friend, now an attorney, explained it to me this way: You are alone in an elevator with a woman. Just before the elevator door opens to a crowded lobby, she rips open her blouse, smears her make-up, and dishevels her hair. The door opens and she is screaming, pointing an accusatory finger at you. Assuming that there is not a surveillance camera in the elevator, you are going to have a difficult time defending an attempted rape charge.
Could this same scenario happen in an examination room? You bet.
Patients have certainly been victimized by their doctors, and I suspect there have been many doctors who have been victimized by their patients. The problem with human medicine is that both parties are human. Some are good; some are bad.
I used to appropriately hug my adult patients without thinking, like the ones that just received some bad medical news. Hugs can heal as well as drugs. The last adult person that I hugged in an examination room was a crying man with his two-year old daughter. His wife, the child’s mother, was just killed a few days before. She was struck in a crosswalk by a guy driving too fast while talking on a cell phone.
Working in pediatrics, I receive and give a lot of kid hugs. The pediatric examination room is a safe venue since children are always accompanied by parents, grandparents, and siblings. The only real risk of kid hugs that I experience is the infectious disease transmission. I truly love my job and I can’t imagine what it would be like to be falsely accused of sexual impropriety, or to lose my license to practice medicine.
I don’t know if my friend was guilty or not. He is my friend, so I will just hug him anyway.