When certain doctors have been disciplined, the punishment often consists of a short suspension paired with mandatory therapy that treats sexually abusive behavior as a symptom of an illness or addiction, the AP found.
By JEFF HORWITZ and JULIET LINDERMAN APNews.com
The first time that Dr. Anthony Bianchi came onto a patient, California’s medical board alleged, the gynecologist placed a chair against the exam room door, put his fingers into the woman’s vagina and exposed his erect penis.
The second time, the board claimed, he told a patient that he couldn’t stop staring at her breasts and recounted a dream in which he performed oral sex on her in the office.
The third time, the board charged, he told a pregnant patient suffering from vaginal bleeding that she shouldn’t shave her pubic hair before her next visit, as he was getting too excited.
These episodes led to disciplinary actions by the state’s medical board in 2012 and in 2016. Bianchi agreed not contest the charges, and he held onto his medical license. Under a settlement with California’s medical board, he agreed to seek therapy and refrain from treating women during five years of probation.
Bianchi did not respond to telephone messages from The Associated Press left for him at the workers’ compensation clinic in Fresno, California, where he now evaluates occupational health claims.
In recent months, Hollywood moguls, elite journalists and top politicians have been pushed out of their jobs or resigned their posts in the wake allegations of sexual misconduct. In contrast, the world of medicine is often more forgiving, according to an AP investigation.
When the doctors are disciplined, the punishment often consists of a short suspension paired with mandatory therapy that treats sexually abusive behavior as a symptom of an illness or addiction, the AP found.
Decades of complaints that the physician disciplinary system is too lenient on sex-abusing doctors have produced little change in the practices of state medical boards. And the #MeToo campaign and the rapid push in recent months to increase accountability for sexual misconduct in American workplaces do not appear to have sparked a movement toward changing how medical boards deal with physicians who act out sexually against patients or staffers.
The sentencing of Larry Nassar, a former doctor for the U.S. Olympic gymnastics program convicted of abusing more than 150 women and girls, has put a high-profile case of physician misconduct in the spotlight.
But across the country, most doctors accused of sexual misconduct avoid a medical license review entirely. A study last year found that two-thirds of doctors who were sanctioned by their employers or paid a settlement as the result of sex misconduct claims never faced medical board discipline.
“There’s been a failure of the medical community to take a stand against the issue,” said Azza Abbudagga, a health services researcher with nonprofit advocacy organization Public Citizen.
She published a report recently detailing sexual misconduct among physicians. Its findings showed that of the 253 doctors reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank for having been sanctioned by their respective hospitals or health care organizations for sexual misconduct, or paid a settlement that stemmed from such an allegation, 170 of them were not disciplined by state medical boards, even though all boards have access to the reports filed with the data bank.
“They could tell the public that they will investigate every single case. There are many things that can be done, even just having a policy of zero tolerance,” she said. “If every single hospital would just take a stand and issue a statement saying clearly that any sexual misconduct with patients won’t be tolerated and that there will be consequences including permanently revoking the medical license of every doctor found guilty.”
Current guidelines from the Federation of State Physician Health Programs, which represents doctor rehab programs in 47 states, are largely silent on handling sexual misconduct treatment and describe sexual harassment as a “cause of impairment” in a doctor. Programs to treat doctor impairment are inherently supposed to be “nondisciplinary,” per the federation’s guidelines.
Linda Bresnahan, who heads the federation, said its guidelines are being rewritten and, despite their language, should not be applied to sexual misbehavior. A statement provided by the federation says only about half of doctor rehab programs nationwide accept doctors accused of sexual misconduct, a choice the group considers to be “a local issue beyond the purview of national guidance.”
The harm committed by sexually abusive doctors is aggravated by the personal nature of the doctor-patient relationship, according to experts and doctors’ victims.
When Marissa White came to Dr. Gunwant Dhaliwal in 2007 for neck pain after a car accident, he reached under her shirt and into her bra, grabbing her breasts.
A jury convicted him of misdemeanor battery in the case, and Florida’s medical board concluded that his crime demonstrated his “lack of good moral character” and “lack of worthiness” to practice medicine. But despite that finding — and at least six other similar allegations made by women patients and employees, both before and after the incident with White, according to court cases and police complaints — Dhaliwal can still be found practicing at his Tampa-area urgent care clinics.
“I had to sit there in front of him, look him in the eye, they made their guilty verdict and that’s it, nothing came of it,” White told the AP of her experience at trial. She still lives in Florida, but won’t even go to the neighborhood where Dhaliwal practices medicine.
“He should have lost his license a long time ago. He should have lost it the first time it happened.”
But his office manager told the AP that, while the Florida board referred him to the state’s impaired physician network for evaluation, nothing came of it.
“They did an evaluation and did not find anything wrong,” the woman told the AP. “They don’t do any treatment.”
The office manager, who refused to provide the AP with her full name, noted that Dhaliwal had not had any new complaints brought against him since his settlement with the medical board. When the AP asked to speak with Dhaliwal, she said that he was declining on the advice of his lawyers.
Dhaliwal did not respond to requests for comment left with his clinic’s staff or a voicemail left with his lawyer.
Examples of problematic behavior are easy to find in states across the country.
In Arkansas, Dr. Robert Rook was allowed to keep his family practice open, so long as he’s chaperoned, despite facing multiple criminal charges for rape. Prosecutors subsequently downgraded the charges to more than 20 counts of sexual assault in the second- and third-degree, charges for which Rook says he is innocent.
Rook did not return phone messages left with a secretary at his Conway office. He is set to face trial later this year.
The Idaho State Board of Medicine in May reinstated the license of Richard Pines, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who lost his license in 2013 after the board accused him of having sexual relationships with four former patients, including taking nude photos of a 14-year-old and convincing the boys that he needed to practice giving naked massages to keep his medical license.
The state’s highest court in 2015 ruled that Pines had engaged in sexual misconduct, but determined that two of the four alleged victims were not former patients. The court remanded Pines’ case to a lower court and vacated his punishment, instead ordering the board to re-evaluate the scope of disciplinary action based on the charges the court upheld. The court’s order also blasted the board for being impartial, accusing its members of “passionately railing” against Pines in its decision.
The AP reached out to Pines’ former employers and contacted his most recent attorneys, but was unable to reach him. The AP also left a message for a biller at Sage Health Care, where Pines still processes invoices. The receptionist said Pines bills through the office but was unable to provide more details about his current practice.
State-authorized programs that attempt to oversee the rehabilitation of doctors who have committed sexual misconduct aren’t always forthcoming about their methods. In Florida, the Professional’s Resource Network, which the state medical board assigned to evaluate Gunwant Dhaliwal after his battery conviction, asked the AP to provide detailed questions and a list of sources before it would answer questions.
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This story originally appeared on apnews.com