Abusive Doctors Shielded in the U.S., Patients at Risk

September 27, 2016

A lack of transparency in the system for disciplining physicians across the U.S. provides cover for doctors accused of molesting patients or other forms of sexual abuse against them, according to an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

No state routinely requires doctors who have been punished for sexual misconduct or other offenses to tell patients about their disciplinary history, the newspaper reported.

Many states impede patients from unearthing information themselves about their doctors. Four post no disciplinary records online, and eight purge files after as little as five years, the newspaper reported. It said up to 21 states sometimes may issue private orders that allow doctors to continue practice with no public hearings and no public scrutiny.

The Journal-Constitution’s findings come from a national investigation into sexual misconduct by doctors. Through examining tens of thousands of documents from state medical boards, the newspaper identified more than 2,400 physicians disciplined for sexual offenses involving patients since 1999. About half are still licensed.

Medical boards typically require doctors on probation to notify hospitals where they have privileges, as well as their malpractice insurers, disciplinary records show. However, patients are almost always are left in the dark, the newspaper reports.

The system was at the heart of a contentious debate in California over whether doctors should have to tell patients about their tainted records. Consumer groups said that patients deserve openness from the physicians in whom they place so much trust.

“From a patient’s perspective, he looks just like a doctor practicing medicine,” said Lisa McGiffert, director of the Safe Patient Project, an affiliate of the advocacy group Consumers Union. “But there is a big difference between a doctor on probation and a doctor not on probation.”

Medical lobbyists said the California proposal treated doctors unfairly. They said they worried that doctors might have to disclose unsubstantiated or even fabricated allegations, often without having the chance to defend themselves before a medical board.

The California Medical Association considered the bill “in direct violation of due process rights,” Laura Braden Quigley, the organization’s vice president of communications, said in a statement. It “does nothing to increase patient safety and arbitrarily ignores most providers in the continuum of care.”

Proponents said most doctors accept probation to avoid a full airing of the allegations against them. Often, they are required to have a chaperone present while examining patients and may be restricted from practicing without supervision.

The paper reported on one plastic surgeon, Dr. Mark Knight, in Orange County, California, saying he is under such restrictions until 2020 and will face close monitoring until then.

The report said Knight, 47, surrendered his medical license in 2010 after the state medical board accused him of sexual misconduct with two female patients. The paper added that the doctor, who was not charged with any crime and was subsequently reinstated by the California medical board in 2015, doesn’t have to tell patients about his disciplinary status.

The newspaper said board records showed one of those patients accused him of massaging her surgical scars and kissing her against her will. It said the other woman complained the doctor “forced himself” on her by initiating intercourse, according to a lawsuit she filed with her husband, in addition to board records. Knight denied the allegations contained in the lawsuit, since dropped.

Knight did not respond to emails and phone messages requesting an interview.

The legislative proposal to require patient notification failed in the California Senate in June. The sponsor, Sen. Jerry Hill, a Democrat who represents much of Silicon Valley, said he will try again next year.

“There is absolutely no legitimate reason” to oppose disclosure, Hill said. “There is a self-interested reason. That’s no excuse for not informing the patient.”

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