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#MeToo at the doctor's office: Investigation finds sexual misconduct, flaws in discipline

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PORTLAND, Ore. (TND) — Doctors are among the most trusted professionals we have, but what happens when a physician crosses the line to sexually abuse or assault a patient?


High-profile cases have recently grabbed the headlines, from USA Gymnastics Doctor Larry Nassar, who was sent to prison for sexually abusing his patients to Doctor George Tyndall, a University of Southern California gynecologist, facing dozens of charges involving sexual misconduct. But they're far from the only cases.

An exclusive Spotlight on America investigation dug into disturbing instances of sexual misconduct and exposed troubling problems in how doctors are disciplined nationwide. Years after the #MeToo movement shook up Hollywood's elite and Washington politics, some are calling for a similar reckoning in medicine.

Lisa Pratt and Katie Medley are best friends. The Portland, Oregon moms raise their children together, share a devotion to their church and talk about just about everything.

But with one question in the summer of 2020, they opened up a dark and disturbing secret they never knew they shared. Pratt says she asked Medley if she'd ever had a "weird" experience with a man named Dr. David Farley, the family physician both had trusted with their care.

Her face basically went white and she said, 'Why are you asking me that?'" Pratt recalled. "It hit me like a ton of bricks, like, ok, I'm not the only one."

Pratt is far from the only one making claims Farley had been sexually inappropriate in his role as a physician. In fact, she and Medley are now among more than 100 women suing the doctor for sexual misconduct they allege happened in the small family practice where he worked for decades in the town of West Linn.

In graphic detail, court papers claim Farley committed a laundry list of disturbing offenses, with allegations including:

  • Forcing patients to strip naked
  • Subjecting patients, including minors, to unnecessary pelvic and breast exams
  • Ungloved rectal exams
  • Forcing his fingers into patients' vaginas
  • Photographing patients' breasts and genitals on his cell phone
The worst experience of assault that I had with Doctor Farley was a pelvic exam during which he just sexually assaulted me with his ungloved hand and it wasn’t a pelvic exam at all," former Farley patient Katie Medley told us.

For the last month, Spotlight on America has made repeated attempts to contact Farley and his attorneys by phone and email for comment related to the allegations against him. We received no response.

According to Pratt, Farley put his face directly on her breast to listen for breastmilk, then put his hand down her shirt to palpate for milk. "It was all really strange and I felt really uncomfortable," she told Spotlight on America.

In 2020, the pair took their complaints to the Oregon Medical Board, the state agency in charge of licensing and disciplining doctors. Initially, the board allowed Farley to voluntarily withdraw from practicing medicine without admitting any wrongdoing pending an investigation. He retired from his practice and once the investigation was over, the board revoked his license.

I feel like if it weren't for us coming forward, his license would not have been revoked. He would have been able to quietly step away," former Farley patient Lisa Pratt said.

Spotlight on America has spent months digging into doctor discipline records throughout the U.S. from the past several years, examining how sexual misconduct among physicians like Farley is brought to light and handled. We found dozens of incidents of sexual misconduct by physicians from coast to coast, as well as evidence that some state medical boards fail to take quick or strong action to hold those doctors accountable.

Our investigation found a lack of transparency in some states which means the public isn't being warned about doctors who've engaged in sexual misconduct, delays in taking action in some cases that could put patients at risk, and what some experts consider weak standards of punishment that often allow doctors to walk away or gives them a slap on the wrist, opening the door for them to potentially continue abusing patients elsewhere.

Our findings came as no surprise to Dr. Sidney Wolfe, founder of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

A physician himself, Wolfe has been raising the alarm about sexual misconduct in medicine for years, calling for swifter, more severe and more consistent discipline from state medical boards tasked by law with protecting patients. He first wrote about the issues surrounding doctor discipline in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association back in 1998, saying, "our analysis of the severity of discipline indicates that regulatory agencies may not be adequately sanctioning those physicians whom they do discipline for these offenses."

Dr. Wolfe's work at that time found almost 40% of the doctors he studied who had been disciplined for sexual misconduct were still practicing. Decades later, he says little has changed when it comes to disciplining physicians involved in gross violations of the boundaries he says must exist between physician and patient. He told us, "It happens too slowly and not often enough and when it happens it's not an adequate kind of discipline action."

In an issue that is so devastating to women, and occasionally men, as this, it is outrageous that the medical boards aren't doing a better job," said Wolfe. " As a physician, it's embarrassing to me.

Our Spotlight on America investigation uncovered a number of cases where physicians were allowed to give up their medical licenses after repeated misconduct rather than being handed more severe disciplinary action. That includes cases where records claim a doctor sexually violated several male patients, a physician who conducted ungloved vaginal exams, and even one doctor who attempted to have sex with a sedated patient at a hotel just hours after surgery.

We also found several cases where the punishment for serious sexual misconduct was probation or restrictions that bar doctors from seeing female patients but allow them to keep practicing. In some of those cases, there was a history of sexual misconduct, including sending inappropriate messages or groping.

"The evidence is quite clear that probation is a slap on the wrist. It's not effective," Wolfe told us. "The forces are really stacked up against solving this national crisis of inadequate discipline of doctors."

Among the most egregious examples we found in our nationwide investigation:

  • In Maryland, a physician was found by his state board to have engaged in a yearslong "unchecked" pattern of sexual harassment and propositioning. His license was suspended but never revoked.
  • A Missouri boarding school doctor is currently facing eight felony sex crimes charges. According to the state licensing page, his medical license is active with no discipline on his record.
  • In Texas, board documents say a family doctor who was caught on tape making sexually inappropriate comments and groping was suspended in 2019, before being put back into practice soon after. He was later criminally charged with possession of child pornography and his license, while temporarily suspended, hasn't yet been revoked.
For every doctor who gets caught by a medical board sexually abusing a patient, there are probably 10 who are doing this," said Wolfe.

Back in Oregon, Lisa Pratt and Katie Medley are pushing for more accountability for the doctor they claim abused them. Although Farley can no longer practice, he has not been arrested or charged, despite allegations of abuse from dozens of patients. Police told Spotlight on America they're still investigating.

For now, Katie and Lisa believe their lawsuit may be the strongest way to send a message to any doctor engaged in sexual misconduct. Pratt told us, "I’m so grateful for the #MeToo era that it has given us more of a voice, but we still have such a long way. There’s still so much that needs to be done for doctors to be held accountable."

Medley echoed her sentiments, saying, "Even though it’s a small amount of doctors that do that, the collateral damage is huge. It's huge. So we have to prevent the next doctor Farley, the next doctor Nassar, from doing the same thing, because right now they can."

So why aren't some boards taking a harder stance on physicians, even after disturbing sexual misconduct allegations?

On the next Spotlight on America debuting Monday, March 14, we dig further into the problem. Our team surveyed every state’s medical board to see who's handling discipline and what steps they're taking to curb the problem. We also take our questions to the body that represents all of the medical boards in the United States. The big question: Why isn’t doctor sexual misconduct a zero-tolerance event?

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

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