When doctors sexually abuse patients, entire communities suffer. The nation was gripped recently by the over 150 young women who read victim impact statements at the Michigan trial of Dr. Larry Nassar. Nassar, who served for decades as the USA Gymnastics national team doctor and an osteopathic physician at Michigan State University, was convicted of sexually abusing all of those women and girls under the guise of "treatment." Often, the abuse took place, surreptitiously, when a girl's parent was in the examination room.
Although the Nassar case is likely the highest-profile case in recent years involving sexual abuse of a patient by a doctor, it is, sadly, far from the only one. Other doctors may not have so many victims, or so many willing to come forward, or be as well known. But they share one trait in common with Larry Nassar: a willingness to violate the ethics of their profession and harm innocent patients who trusted them.
Sexual abuse, especially of a child, is a terrible crime. It is even more horrific when perpetrated by someone in a position of authority, someone the victim is supposed to trust, like a clergy member, teacher, or doctor. Because of the perpetrator's position, the victim may be even more likely to question whether they themselves somehow caused the abuse, whether anyone will believe them if they tell, or in fact, whether what happened was really "abuse" at all. After all, many legitimate medical treatments may be uncomfortable or unpleasant, but necessary. Abusive doctors may take advantage of this fact, together with the patient's trust in her physician, to both sexually abuse a patient and deny the patient's experience of what happened.
There are a number of factors that enable doctors, in particular, to get away with sexual abuse of a patient. As mentioned above, women are conditioned to trust their doctors, sometimes more than they trust their own perceptions. Doctors are, by definition, professionals; it is often difficult for people to see "fine, upstanding citizens" who provide a service to the community as abusive criminals. That may contribute to patients' unwillingness to disclose abuse, for fear they will not be believed.
When patients do tell of their abuse, those to whom they report it may be unwilling to destroy the career of a "good doctor" over "unproven allegations."That happened for years in the Nassar case, allowing dozens more girls to be abused after the initial allegations against Nassar were made. And, sadly, if a doctor is providing a benefit to the organization for which he works, administrators may be unwilling to rock the boat unless allegations of abuse are undeniable.
Doctors also often have golden opportunities to abuse that other abusers may not: a private examination or treatment room. Doctors may medicate a patient, which the patient accepts without question—only that "medication" may be a drug to render a patient unconscious or affect her memory. Other doctors sexually abuse patients while they are under anesthesia for a legitimate procedure.
The result is a violation of trust, physical and emotional trauma, and a sense of being violated again when a woman works up the courage to disclose her abuse and is not believed. Some women stop seeking medical care because the mere experience of being in a medical setting is traumatizing. Counseling might help, but, for those who were abused by a therapist or psychiatrist, the very environment that ought to be helpful has already been revealed as a place of danger, not healing.
The judge in the Larry Nassar case allowed every survivor who was willing to come forward to read, directly to the doctor who was seated in the courtroom, a victim impact statement. This took several days, but the abuse survivors who spoke publicly about making their statements said that doing so was empowering and gave them back something that the doctor took from them.
Survivors of sexual abuse by doctors may wish to press criminal charges. However, there is also another avenue open to them: a medical malpractice action. When most people think of medical malpractice, they may think of an amputation performed on the wrong limb or an incorrect dosage of medication causing a patient harm. Sexual abuse by a doctor is also medical malpractice. The doctor has a duty to act in the patient's best interest. The doctor who commits sexual abuse breaches that duty, and the patient is harmed.
Of course, a medical malpractice case cannot take away the abuse and restore a patient to the way she or he was before the abuse happened. But filing a malpractice action can benefit survivors of abuse in a number of ways. First, it allows them to speak out and to have their voices heard, the very thing that the survivors of Nassar's abuse found so empowering. Second, it holds the doctor to account and may prevent the sexual abuse of subsequent patients, preventing untold numbers of people from having to go through what the claimant experienced. Lastly, a medical malpractice action may result in a financial recovery, allowing a survivor time to get needed therapy from a trusted source and heal without the financial pressure of needing to work.
If you have been sexually abused by a doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist, or believe you may have been, it can be hard to trust another professional. We encourage you to speak with an experienced Oregon medical malpractice attorney about your experience. We have handled many cases involving sexual abuse by medical professionals, and we are sensitive to the challenges you might be facing. We make it a priority to support and empower you, and to do whatever is possible through the legal system to help you heal from this abuse of trust.
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The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
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