Too Many Doctors Who Sexually Abuse Patients Go Unpunished

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


December 02, 2016

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Hi. I am Art Caplan, at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center. Sexual abuse by physicians is something we do not like to talk about. It is something that often gets shoveled under the rug, but it is a real problem within medicine.

An investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found thousands of cases in which physicians over the past decade had been convicted of sexual abuse of their patients, of sexually harassing their patients, and of using child pornography.[1] Often, sadly, very little was done to punish these people. Most physicians, in many states, still are able to practice.

I believe that it is time for a zero-tolerance policy when you are convicted of sexual abuse. I know that is something that many people disagree with; I know we think that people deserve a second chance. I know we believe that there are programs and educational things that can happen, that we can try to treat people who are involved with this kind of behavior. I don't think that is the right way to go when a conviction of rape or serious molestation of a minor is involved.

I say that in part because I think that you need a certain character, a certain kind of virtue, to be a physician. People trust you. They are vulnerable when they are around you. If you were involved and convicted of sexual assault of abusing people, particularly minor children, I think you lose your right to be a physician. It is a privilege. It is not something that you are guaranteed just because you went to school and put in the monetary resources.

Some will say, "But look—doctors are very expensive. We cannot afford to lose the health manpower. We ought to try to do whatever we can to keep them practicing." That leads me to say that I am not so sure that we have the psychiatric and psychological programs that can guarantee that people will not repeat. There are certainly rehabilitation programs that we know have efficacy. They're there for alcohol. They're there for drugs. I am not against trying to insist that people go through those programs, get sober, and then return to practice, maybe supervised, and maybe with more oversight.

I think sex abuse is like the situation we have with priests. When we say that we expect the priesthood to police its own and get rid of anyone who has been a molester... Maybe they need therapy, maybe they need help; but they are not people we want to put around vulnerable children. They are not people we want to have in trusted positions of authority where they can again take advantage of others. I think we ought to expect in medicine what we have come to expect in religion. If you offend and if you are convicted, and if it is sexual misconduct of a serious nature, we do not need a hearing. We do not need a letter of reprimand. We should have no tolerance. I think that is what the public expects, and I think that is what state medical boards should be moving to achieve.

I'm Art Caplan. I am at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU's Langone Medical Center. Thanks for watching.


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