King PA, Chaudhry HJ, Staz ML.
Published online March 29, 2021.
The Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) recently engaged with its member boards and investigators, trauma experts, physicians, resident physicians, medical students, survivors of physician abuse, and the public to critically review practices related to the handling of reports of sexual misconduct (including harassment and abuse) toward patients by physicians. The review was undertaken as part of a core responsibility of boards to protect the public and motivated by concerning reports of unacceptable behavior by physicians. Specific recommendations from the review were adopted by the FSMB’s House of Delegates on May 2, 2020, and are highlighted in this Viewpoint.
Sexual misconduct by physicians exists along a spectrum of severity that may begin with “grooming” behaviors and end with sexual assault. Behaviors at any point on this spectrum should be of concern because unreported minor violations (including sexually suggestive comments or inappropriate physical contact) may lead to greater misconduct. In 2018, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine identified sexual harassment as an important problem in scientific communities and medicine, finding that greater than 50% of women faculty and staff and 20% to 50% of women students reportedly have encountered or experienced sexually harassing conduct in academia. Data from state medical boards indicate that 251 disciplinary actions were taken against physicians in 2019 for “sexual misconduct” violations (Table). The actual number may be higher because boards often use a variety of terms, including unprofessional conduct, physician-patient boundary issues, or moral unfitness, to describe such actions. The FSMB has begun a project to encourage boards to align their categorization of all disciplinary actions to better understand the scope of misconduct.