What women have known for years is starting to become impossible to ignore, thanks to recent headlines: No profession is spared from sexual harassment and assault.
Medicine is no exception, despite the fact that our relationships with our doctors are some of our most vulnerable and intimate. We lay out personal health details, sometimes quite literally baring our bodies. Our vulnerability gives power to our doctors, and, sadly, like in any relationship, that power can be exploited.
Los Angeles-based ob-gyn Sherry A. Ross, author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period. calls this violation of the doctor-patient relationship white coat betrayal. “A doctor is a person we look up to and respect, dating back to the Hippocratic oath,” she says. The white coat is a symbol of that respect—and when that oath to do no harm is broken, we are betrayed.
Over the years, Dr. Ross has heard stories from patients about inappropriate touching. One patient told her about a doctor who didn’t use gloves during a pelvic exam. Another spoke up about about inappropriate fondling during a breast exam. A third woman said her doctor rubbed his erect penis against her thigh. Others have endured verbal assault or a discomforting sexual stare. The type of misconduct doesn’t matter, she says. “Ultimately, it’s the perception of the patient and how they feel about the behavior, knowing something isn’t right.”
Ex-USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting injured gymnasts, may be the most high-profile case of white coat betrayal. (Nassar was sentenced to 60 years in prison on child pornography charges; he will be sentenced for the assault charges in January 2018.) “But I think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Ross says. In fact, a 2016 investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution identified 2,400 doctors nationwide who had been disciplined for sexual misconduct since 1999. Even more unsettling: Half still held medical licenses at the time the report was published.
Dr. Ross hopes more patients feel empowered to share their stories and make it known that they will not stand for sexual misconduct at the doctor’s office. “Your voice can open the door for other victims to come forward and stop the cycle,” she says. “I would love to see a movement in this group of professionals.”
She suggests reporting any misconduct to a business manager at your provider’s practice. Talk to family members or close friends for support. And report the doctor to both your state’s medical board and the police. “State medical boards have their own governing systems, but this is also against the law,” Dr. Ross says. You can also contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
At the doctor’s office, you can make sure your doctor follows some standards of practice that generally help keep patients safe, Dr. Ross explains. Typically, if a male doctor is doing any kind of physical exam on a female patient, there should be a nurse or medical assistant in the room. You can ask to be accompanied if your doctor doesn’t suggest this himself. Your doctor also shouldn’t ask you to take off more clothes than the examination calls for. “If you’re going to a dermatologist for a rash on your hand, you shouldn’t be getting undressed,” Dr. Ross says. “If you’re going to a dermatologist for an annual mole check, you would undress.” You have every right to question anything that doesn’t feel right to you.
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That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to ask those questions—or to report behavior you know is inappropriate or illegal. Victims might have to fight through self-blame, self-denial, or manipulation from doctors who deny their claims. Not everyone is ready to fight that fight, Dr. Ross says. Some patients may simply never go back to that doctor. Whether you choose to report or not, take care of yourself first, Dr. Ross says. “Find support groups or a therapist if need be.”