States cracking down harder on docs who sexually abuse patients


A new California law ensures that doctors found to have engaged in sexual misconduct with patients will never again practice medicine in the state.

It’s the latest example of states taking doctor sexual misconduct more seriously after longstanding criticism that medical boards have been too lenient.

The law, which takes effect in January 2023, requires the state’s medical board to permanently revoke these doctors’ licenses instead of allowing them to petition the board for reinstatement after 3 years.

“Physician licenses should not be reinstated after egregious sexual misconduct with patients. The doctor-patient relationship has to remain sacrosanct and trusted,” said Peter Yellowlees, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis.

Although the vast majority of the nation’s estimated 1 million doctors don’t sexually abuse patients, the problem is a national one.

The Federation of State Medical Boards defines sexual misconduct as the exploitation of the physician-patient relationship in a sexual way. The exploitation may be verbal or physical and can occur in person or virtually.

The FSMB conducted a 2-year review of how medical boards handled cases of sexual misconduct, issuing a report in 2020 that contained 38 recommended actions.

Four states in addition to California have enacted laws that incorporate some FSMB recommendations. These include revoking doctors’ licenses after a single egregious act of sexual misconduct (including sexual assault), regardless of whether the physician was charged or convicted; increased reporting by hospitals and doctors of sexual misconduct; and training of physicians to recognize and report sexual misconduct.

The four state laws are:

  • Georgia’s HB 458. It was signed into law in May 2021, and it authorizes the medical board to revoke or suspend a license if a physician is found guilty of sexually assaulting a patient in a criminal case. Doctors are required to report other doctors who have sexually abused patients and to take continuing medical education (CME) units on sexual misconduct.
  • Florida’s SB 1934. This legislation was signed into law in June 2021, and it bars physicians charged with serious crimes such as sexual assault, sexual misconduct against patients, or possession of child pornography from seeing patients until those charges are resolved by the legal system.
  • West Virginia’s SB 603. Signed into law in March 2022 it prohibits the medical board from issuing a license to a physician who engaged in sexual activity or misconduct with a patient whose license was revoked in another state or was involved in other violations.
  • Tennessee HB 1045. It was signed into law in May 2021, and authorizes the medical board, upon learning of an indictment against a physician for a controlled substance violation or sexual offense, to immediately suspend the doctor’s ability to prescribe controlled substances until the doctor’s case is resolved.

A published study identified a total of 1,721 reports of physician sexual misconduct that were submitted to the National Practitioner Data Bank between 2000 and 2019. The annual incidence of sexual misconduct reports averaged 10.8 per 100,000 U.S. physician licensees, said the researchers.

In a groundbreaking 2016 investigation, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed thousands of documents and found more than 2,400 doctors whose sexual misconduct cases clearly involved patients since 1999.

Physician sexual misconduct is likely underreported

The actual incidence of physician-patient sexual misconduct is likely higher as a result of underreporting, according to the researchers.

Because a substantial power differential exists between patients and their physicians, the researchers noted, it follows that patient victims, like other sexual assault victims, may be unwilling or unable to report the incident in question.

Many violations involving physician sexual misconduct of patients never came to the attention of state regulators, according to the Journal-Constitution investigation. Reporting showed that hospitals, clinics, and fellow doctors fail to report sexual misconduct to regulators, despite laws in most states requiring them to do so.

Media investigations highlight medical board shortcomings

Public pressure on the California Medical Board increased after the Los Angeles Times investigated what happened to doctors who surrendered or had their licenses revoked after being reported for sexual abuse with patients. The Times revealed in 2021 that the board reinstated 10 of 17 doctors who petitioned for reinstatement.

They include Esmail Nadjmabadi, MD, of Bakersfield, Calif., who had sexually abused six female patients, including one in her mid-teens. The Times reported that, in 2009, he pleaded no contest to a criminal charge that he sexually exploited two or more women and surrendered his medical license the following year.

Five years later, Dr. Nadjmabadi petitioned the medical board to be reinstated and the board approved his request.

The California board has also reinstated several doctors who underwent sex offender rehabilitation. Board members rely heavily on a doctor’s evidence of rehabilitation, usually with the testimony of therapists hired by the doctor, and no input from the patients who were harmed, according to the Times’ investigation.

High-profile sexual misconduct or abuse cases involving Larry Nassar, MD, and Robert Anderson, MD, in Michigan; Richard Strauss, MD, in Ohio; and Ricardo Cruciani, MD, in New York, added to the mounting criticism that medical boards were too lenient in their handling of complaints of sexual misconduct.

Another state tackles sexual misconduct

Ohio’s medical board created an administrative rule stating that licensed physicians have a legal and ethical duty to report colleagues for sexual misconduct with patients and to complete a 1-hour CME training. Failure to report sexual misconduct complaints can lead to a doctor being permanently stripped of his license.

This happened to Robert S. Geiger, MD, in 2016 after not reporting his colleague James Bressi, MD, to the medical board after receiving complaints that Dr. Bressi was sexually abusing female patients at their pain clinic.

Dr. Bressi was convicted of sexual misconduct with a patient, stripped of his medical license, and sentenced to 59 days in prison.

“I think all of these reforms are a step in the right direction and will help to deter doctors from committing sexual misconduct to some extent,” said California activist Marian Hollingsworth, cofounder of the Patient Safety League.

But there’s room for improvement, she said, since “most states fall short in not requiring medical boards to notify law enforcement when they get a complaint of doctor sexual misconduct so the public can be aware of it.”

A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.

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