If you aren’t convinced that sexual abuse by a doctor could happen to you, consider the following statistic: According to research compiled by the American Medical Association, an estimated 5-10% of physicians admit to doctor-patient sexual contact. I don’t know about you, but I find this concerning and worthy of some attention. We are wise to be prepared and take preventative measures.
This post is not a bash against doctors in general. I could write a whole post on my current wonderful and amazing team of physicians. This is an attempt to build awareness of the small percentage of doctors who do not have our best interest in mind and who seek to abuse their power and authority to hurt individuals who are in weak and vulnerable states. Unfortunately, just like in any other profession, doctors like this exist.
What do we do when a doctor makes us feel uncomfortable or makes inappropriate comments? What do we do about doctors who feel just a bit “off,” leaving us questioning if they are actually safe and well-intentioned?
I’m not talking about doctors who are rude, have poor bedside manner, or lack social skills. I’m talking about doctors who may be unsafe and looking for a chance to abuse vulnerable patients.
Perhaps this topic feels far out there and overly dramatic. This is the type of situation that makes us think – that could never happen to me. Until it does. To be honest, I had never considered questions of this nature until a disconcerting experience with a questionable doctor a few months ago. Now I am wrestling through them, and I think the answers are important.
The Scenario that Prompted These Questions
The scenario that prompted these questions occurred on a Sunday when I was woken up in the early morning by sharp pains under my ribs that slammed up like a knife into my shoulder and traveled down the length of my arm. The pain stayed severe for about five minutes, and then I was able to do some deep breathing that calmed everything down to a dull pressure under my ribs.
It seemed worth a trip to the doctor, so later that day I went to a local urgent care to rule out anything concerning.
The appointment started well. The doctor in question handled my physical complaint adequately, asking questions, listening to my breathing, and giving his medical opinion. He ruled out anything serious and suspected costochondritis, a benign but painful condition caused by inflammation of the rib cartilage.
My appointment started well, but it quickly became disconcerting. The doctor began making comments about my physical figure and body that were inappropriate and unprofessional. As he was listening to my breathing, he started by saying that I am in really good shape. This did not make me uncomfortable, but in the back of my mind it seemed odd because although I am quite skinny, I am not in good physical or athletic condition by any means.
As the appointment continued, he starting reassuring me that my condition wasn’t serious and then commented that I should focus on the fact that I have a nice figure I can feel good about. He stated I have a figure that other women my age would be jealous of, and I should focus on this instead of my pain. The first time he said this, I felt uncomfortable, but I simply ignored it and brushed it off. I rationalized that he was trying to make me feel better about my situation, and he had simply chosen a bad technique to do so.
But then, he made the exact same statement again, stating that having a body that would make other women my age jealous is something to feel good about. This time he continued on by saying that when I am feeling bad about my physical symptoms, I can look in the mirror at my body to feel better about myself.
Not only was this comment completely inappropriate, but it was also a sharp jab minimizing my real physical problems.
By this time, I started feeling unsafe and on alert. You know that visceral gut feeling that something is not right and something is not safe? I felt my hair stand on end, adrenaline ready to rush at a moment’s notice.
The appointment ended, and as we were leaving, the last thing he said was one more repetition of how when I am feeling bad about being sick I should remember how I have a body that would make other women jealous. If you haven’t been counting, he made this statement three times during the course of the appointment.
During the appointment, his statements made me feel completely frozen and unsure how to respond. I felt like a deer caught in a car’s headlights, unable to move.
It wasn’t until I arrived home that I was able to process everything. Although the doctor did not do anything beyond making uncomfortable statements or harm me in any way, I am aware of several huge red flags indicating he may have had bad intentions that did not come to fruition in my particular case.
Over the past few months, I have considered what information we all need to know to ensure that we do not get caught in a situation that might lead to being taken advantage of.
Know the Statistics
Statistics from the American Medical Association
The American Medical Association has the following to say on the prevalence rate of physician-patient sexual contact:
“The majority of existing studies on physician-patient sexual contact examine sexual contact between psychiatrists and their patients. Studies of psychiatrists indicate that between 5-10% reported having sexual contact with patients. Data for all specialties are not available but a 1976 study suggested that the percentages may be comparable for other specialties.
Much of the research done on the prevalence of physician-patient sexual contact is based on self-reporting by physicians. The general stigma attached to sexual contact with patients and the professional repercussions which may result from admitting to such contact have led most researchers to believe that the occurrence of patient-physician sexual contact is underreported.” (Sexual Misconduct in the Practice of Medicine)
Know the Signs
Educate Yourself on the Common Forms of Physician-Patient Sexual Contact
A report written by the American Medical Association recognizes the three most common ways sexual contact occurs between a physician and a patient. Always consider your physician’s behavior in light of these potential motivations.
- “Physicians may become involved in personal relationships with patients that are concurrent with but independent of treatment
- Some physicians may use their position to gain sexual access to their patients by representing sexual contact as part of care or treatment
- Others may assault patients by engaging in sexual contact with incompetent or unconscious patients.” Consider reading the full report here (Sexual Misconduct in the Practice of Medicine).
Educate Yourself on Common Grooming Behaviors
In my situation my doctor did not do anything that would constitute inappropriate sexual advances. But, as a counselor I am intimately aware of the grooming process that many sexual perpetrators use to gain access to their victims, as they see how far they can safely go with different individuals without getting caught.
Sexual perpetrators carefully assess how potential victims respond to seemingly innocuous statements, and slowly become bolder. They wait for the right type of vulnerable person, slowly pushing the boundaries and making small advances until inappropriate comments turn into inappropriate behaviors. For example, if I had responded extremely positively to my doctor’s comments, obviously in need of attention and validation, perhaps he would have continued on in a different way. Just because he never said anything explicit to me, doesn’t mean he never has or never will to another individual.
Because these grooming behaviors can be so subtle and seemingly innocent, it is of utmost importance that we listen to our gut. If the situation feels wrong, it probably is. If your gut is telling you that innocent behavior may be hiding bad intentions, you are probably right. It is better to act and be embarrassed if you are wrong, than to not act and be sexually assaulted.
Know your Options
Research your doctors before you see them.
Every state has a database that allows you to look up individual physicians to see if they have any current or past complaints, or whether their license has ever been suspended or revoked. Consider looking up your physicians before you see them. Here is an example database of where you can look up any Maryland physician. You can easily find the database for your state by doing a web search for “[Insert your state here] board of physicians.” There should be a clear link on the front page that says something like “Look up a Licensee.”
Be prepared to act in the middle of an appointment that heads in the wrong direction.
I should have told my doctor that he was making me uncomfortable. I didn’t because I felt too frozen to react, and I believe this is a common response in situations such as this. Because we often freeze in possibly dangerous situations, we have to prepare ahead of time to speak up. Now that I have had this experience, I feel more prepared to speak up in the future if a doctor makes me uncomfortable. By making the decision ahead of time, we can be better prepared to protect ourselves. Make the decision now that if your gut is telling you something is wrong, you will say something.
Once you have left a concerning appointment safely, decide if and how you might consider filing a complaint.
- You could choose to file an informal complaint with your doctor’s place of business through the human resources department.
This is the option I chose due to the ambivalent nature of my doctor’s statements. I was able to find the proper address by calling my doctor’s office and asking what the proper protocol was for filing a complaint against an employee.
- You could choose to file a formal complaint through the board of physicians in your particular state.
You can find the contact information for your state’s medical board of physicians in this document. The corresponding website should show the proper protocol for your particular state. For an example, you can check out the Maryland State Board of Physicians and their complaint procedure.
Two Important Notes
Realize that false or exaggerated claims could affect the physician’s professional practice and licensure.
Filing a complaint is not something to take lightly. This is the reason I chose to file a complaint with the physician’s place of work instead of through the state licensing board. Although several red flags were present, he did not do anything that could make me say without a shadow of doubt that he had bad intentions. Gut feelings are important, but not infallible.
Realize that reporting is not just about you, but about every patient the doctor in question encounters.
On the other hand, realize that not reporting abuse or potential grooming behaviors also has consequences. The majority of people do not speak up when they are sexually abused. Because sexual abuse is shrouded in stigma and shame, your doctor could abuse people for years without anyone reporting it. By reporting sexual abuse or concerning behavior, even if you were not personally harmed, you are protecting other more vulnerable individuals who may not be in a strong enough state to reject unwanted advances.
What are your thoughts on the situation, and has something similar ever happened to you? If so, how did you handle it?