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Citing 'national crisis' of inadequate doctor discipline, some call for overhaul of system

FILE —{ }Citing 'national crisis' of inadequate doctor discipline, some call for overhaul of system. (SBG)
FILE — Citing 'national crisis' of inadequate doctor discipline, some call for overhaul of system. (SBG)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (TND) — Cases of sexual misconduct by physicians are rare, but when they happen, an exclusive Spotlight on America investigation found there can be delays and weaknesses in punishment. Doctor discipline is generally handled by state medical boards, but we discovered those organizations are tilted heavily in favor of doctors, with experts calling for reform in a system they believe lets physicians police themselves.

Lisa Pratt and Katie Medley are on a mission to raise awareness about the potential for sexual misconduct in a place most people may never think possible: their doctor’s office. Pratt told us, "I think there’s a lot that people [who] don’t know. Everyone just has this implicit trust with medical professionals."

But that trust was broken for Pratt and Medley by an Oregon doctor. In legal filings detailed in a Spotlight on America investigation, the pair joined dozens of women claiming the physician they saw for years was sexually inappropriate with them. That doctor, who was initially allowed to withdraw from medicine pending an investigation, sent a letter to patients saying he was retiring for "personal reasons" just a few weeks before the state's medical board revoked his license, citing its findings of misconduct.

The case is just one of dozens of instances of sexual misconduct by physicians uncovered as part of our team's nationwide investigation into the problem.

How many women do we have to parade across the media as collateral damage, the ones bearing the cost of there not being a way to prevent this from happening?" asked patient advocate Katie Medley.

Our Spotlight on America investigation found accountability for doctors who commit sexual misconduct is often undermined by weak punishment and delays, with the disciplinary process falling to small medical boards in each state which are governed by specific laws that allow them to function in a way that's often shielded from public view.

"I know that there are so many laws that protect doctors. And that's a huge problem," Lisa Pratt said. That I feel like is something big that needs to be changed, because it's so hard for them to be held accountable."

Doctor Sidney Wolfe has been studying the issue of sexual misconduct in medicine for decades as the founder of Public Citizen's Health Research Group. He told us, "There’s almost no effective legislative oversight within the states over the medical boards. They’re dominated by a board that is tilted, in our view, too often more towards protecting doctors than protecting patients."

That protection, Wolfe argues, is rooted in the fact that doctors tend to dominate most state medical boards. In a recent report ranking state medical boards based on their disciplinary actions, Public Citizen pointed to this as a major problem, suggesting boards should greatly reduce the number of physicians they have and replace them with members of the public.

Spotlight on America looked nationwide and found most boards include only a few members from outside the medical profession, if any at all.

We found Alabama and South Carolina’s medical boards don’t currently include a single member of the public. Florida, Kansas and Iowa have just three public members each compared with 12, 12 and six doctors respectively. Only California and Delaware have a near equal balance.

"There is a democratic process. It’s a group process, you know, so the majority rules," explained Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, the president and CEO of the Federation of State Medical Boards, which represents the individual boards from across the country. "But at the same time, because of the public member’s unique role, when the public speaks through that representation, I’ve seen more often than not, that voice being listened to."

The FSMB's website clearly states on its homepage that its mission is to "protect the public" and "keep patients safe." So we asked Chaudhry about ways to strengthen the system for disciplining doctors who commit sexual misconduct, based on the findings of our investigation which showcased serious problems. He told us his organization has prioritized efforts to curb sexual misconduct among physicians.

I think there are opportunities galore to tighten the process so that we have less of this and maybe even eliminate (sexual misconduct)," said Chaudhry. "I think everyone would agree that is absolutely unacceptable and has to stop."

In 2020, the FSMB released a report with 38 recommendations for state boards following the commission of a workgroup designed to help tackle the issue.

Those recommendations range from increased transparency to intensive education about what constitutes sexual misconduct.

But Chaudhry admits, none of those recommendations are binding. And almost two years later, our team's own survey of state boards found a mixed bag in terms of concrete action. One board even admitted to us they haven’t adopted a single recommendation, prompting us to ask whether the organization truly has any teeth given it rolled out recommendations that may not be used at the state level.

We do what we can to make them aware of our recommendations so they don’t just sit on a shelf somewhere and we can nudge them," Chaudhry explained. "We’ve had some very good conversations with state boards saying, 'Well we’ve done this. Do you think that’s adequate? What are some neighboring states doing?' And they don't have to adopt all of our recommendations. I think some of the more challenging ones are to encourage a change in culture. That’s a recommendation you can’t just do overnight."

But patient advocates think action should be more significant than mere recommendations to curb sexual misconduct. They've called for everything from removing discipline from the hands of state boards altogether to audits of the boards by outside agencies.

Additionally, in 2020, Public Citizen sent a letter to the FSMB and other organizations, calling for misconduct to be labeled as "sexual abuse" and asking to implement a zero-tolerance policy for physicians engaged in that behavior. Parts of Canada and New Zealand already have similar policies, the letter points out.

Back in Oregon, we asked survivor Lisa Pratt if the medical community needs a #MeToo reckoning.

She told us, "100%. Unfortunately, doctors are held to this whole other standard, and to hold a doctor accountable seems to be 10 times harder. And absolutely there should be a #MeToo movement within the medical profession and I hope to help start that."

Pratt and her friend, Katie Medley, say they’re telling their stories to shed light on the problem. But they wish it wasn’t left to victims of misconduct to drive the calls for change.

"Doctors take this oath. The first is to do no harm. And if that’s true then why are we so afraid to hold them accountable?" asked Medley. "We need their help. We need their help to provide accountability so the good doctors can keep helping people and the malicious doctors can be stopped."

To look for disciplinary action that could involve your physician, you can use the FSMB's comprehensive search tool, which compiles information from every state medical board into one location. You'll find that at

And stay tuned for our long-form investigation on doctor discipline coming up in the next edition of Spotlight on America Presents, debuting March 30.

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