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The investigation, published Monday, found that the rise in complaints coincides with the beginning of the #MeToo movement, which encouraged victims of sexual misconduct or assault to speak out about their experiences. Though complaints of sexual misconduct against physicians are small in number, they are among the fastest growing types of allegations.
Recent high-profile incidents of sexual misconduct involving medical professionals were also a catalyst, the Times reported. Those cases include the abuses of Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics doctor who was sentenced in 2018 for 40-175 years in prison for molesting hundreds of young athletes.
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That same year, hundreds of women accused former University of Southern California gynecologist George Tyndall of inappropriate behavior. Tyndall, who worked at the university for nearly three decades, was recently charged for sexually assaulting 16 women.
As such stories garnered national attention, patients have become more vocal in the doctor’s office, seeking to know what doctors are doing during every step of an exam, the Times reported. They’re also more willing to speak up if they feel that something is wrong.
“The days of just sitting back and having the doctor tell you what to do are gone,” Dr. Sheryl Ross, an OB-GYN in Santa Monica, told the Times.
“It’s a look, it’s a touch, it’s having a man rub up against you with an erection — it’s subtle things that I think women didn’t always have an understanding that this is inappropriate,” Ross said.
Between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018, the state medical board received 11,406 complaints against physicians and surgeons, the most in its history.
Among those complaints, 280 were filed against physicians for sexual misconduct, compared with 173 the previous year. The following year, there were 279.
The Medical Board of California, which licenses over 140,000 physicians, has the power to revoke those licenses if it decides an individual has acted inappropriately and violated the license’s terms. Anyone can file a misconduct complaint with the board, which will then be investigated by staff, the Times reported.
Since mid-2017, 23 physicians have lost their licenses over sexual misconduct.
While those cases are often the result of an ongoing criminal case against a doctor, such cases are likely not driving the increase in complaints to the medical board, experts told the Times. Instead, patients are reporting the kind of conduct they might have previously overlooked.
For example, a patient confronted with subtle but inappropriate behavior who might have previously dismissed their discomfort might now feel empowered to speak up, according to Dr. James Marroquin, a bioethicist in University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School.
“Where in the past she just kind of blew it off, if you have more publicity about the stories from Harvey Weinstein and others … it might tip women to respond in a different way,” Marroquin told the Times.
Richard Carpiano, a medical sociologist at UC Riverside, told the Times that it’s vital for the medical profession to address its reputation in the wake of such misconduct cases.
“For the medical profession, the trust between a patient and a doctor is the foundation,” he said.
The Times investigation is the product of public records requests made to the state medical board, which does not typically publicize numbers on sexual misconduct complaints. The board has not yet officially published data from the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which runs from July to June.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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