Legislation to require transparency, reporting of doctor sex abuse

A new bill, expected to be passed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp, will require the Georgia Medical Composite Board to report how many physicians have been the subject of sexual misconduct investigations, including assault, abuse and exploitation. Pictured last year (from left) are board members Dr. John Antalis, Dr. John Jeffrey Marshall, and Dr. E. Dan DeLoach, and interim executive director LaSharn Hughes. (AJC file)
A new bill, expected to be passed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp, will require the Georgia Medical Composite Board to report how many physicians have been the subject of sexual misconduct investigations, including assault, abuse and exploitation. Pictured last year (from left) are board members Dr. John Antalis, Dr. John Jeffrey Marshall, and Dr. E. Dan DeLoach, and interim executive director LaSharn Hughes. (AJC file)

AJC review finds Georgia medical board still rarely issues public discipline

Dr. Peter Ulbrich had his medical license suspended twice for sexual abuse of patients, but Georgia’s medical board didn’t revoke Ulbrich’s license to practice medicine until this year, while the doctor was in prison on a racketeering conviction.

Ulbrich was among a group of Georgia doctors with a sexual misconduct history to be the subject of a public disciplinary action by the Georgia Composite Medical Board during the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years. But the number of public disciplinary orders falls short of the number of sexual misconduct complaints received by the licensing body, according to a review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

ExploreGeorgia lags in disciplining doctors

While the Georgia medical board reported receiving 22 sexual misconduct complaints during the 2020 fiscal year, the AJC found only five cases where Georgia doctors were publicly disciplined for sex abuse or improper relationships with patients. The board issued almost as many orders lifting restrictions or ending probation for doctors who had been disciplined in the past for sexual violations.

The board won’t say how it handled the other complaints or whether they are still pending. But the public may soon have a right to know more about how the medical board deals with doctors accused of crossing boundaries or assaulting patients.

House bill 458, which overwhelmingly passed both the state House and Senate, will require the medical board to report how many physicians have been the subject of sexual misconduct investigations, including assault, abuse and exploitation. The board also will have to reveal how many cases led to board actions, such as revocations, suspensions and restrictions — or whether they were handled with private orders.

The legislation will also require the state’s physicians, medical students and medical board members to undergo new training related to professional boundaries and sexual misconduct. The state’s health care providers will also be required to file a report if they know a doctor has sexually assaulted a patient.

ExploreAJC investigation: Doctors & Sex Abuse

“If nothing else, it’s at least it’s a start education-wise and maybe it will be a wake-up call to physicians that people are looking at this more stringently than they have in the past,” said Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, who sponsored the legislation.

The measure was supported by the medical board, and Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign House Bill 458 into law.

“I view this legislation as a beginning of the process, and what I mean by that is there may be additional efforts to prompt and provoke even more transparency once we get some data from this,” said Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, a co-sponsor of HB 458, who had introduced similar legislation in recent years.

Medical licensing boards across the country were encouraged by the Federation of State Medical Boards to improve their oversight of sexual abuse cases. That push came after the #MeToo movement, several high-profile cases across the nation of doctors who abused vulnerable patients for years, and an in-depth report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In 2016, the AJC’s prize-winning Doctors & Sex Abuse series exposed a broken system that forgave sexually abusive doctors in every state. The series, which uncovered thousands of cases, was launched after the AJC found that two-thirds of the doctors disciplined in Georgia for sexual misconduct were permitted to practice again, a pattern seen across the country.

ExploreFrom November: Georgia medical board rarely disciplines doctors, audit confirms

Physician sexual misconduct has continued to roil the nation over the past year. Among the cases, in March, the University of Southern California announced it would pay more than $1.1 billion to the former patients of a college gynecologist, Dr. George Tyndall, who was accused of sexually violating hundreds of patients.

“All the sunlight being directed at this issue – it certainly can’t hurt and it may very well prevent some instances from occurring, which is the goal,“ Holcomb said. “Because I know how devastating this is when this does happen. The consequences are really impactful all the way around.”

Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, a co-sponsor of HB 458, says of the bill, “All the sunlight being directed at this issue – it certainly can’t hurt and it may very well prevent some instances from occurring, which is the goal.“ (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, a co-sponsor of HB 458, says of the bill, “All the sunlight being directed at this issue – it certainly can’t hurt and it may very well prevent some instances from occurring, which is the goal.“ (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The legislation also passed the General Assembly at a time when the Georgia board is facing new scrutiny and criticism.

Georgia ranks near the bottom nationally for imposing serious disciplinary actions on its licensed physicians, leaving patients vulnerable to incompetent, impaired or abusive physicians, according to a report released last month by Public Citizen, a national consumer organization.

The report reinforced findings last year in blistering a state audit that criticized the Georgia Composite Medical Board for rarely punishing doctors. The audit found that less than 2% of cases opened against physicians during the last fiscal year resulted in any public disciplinary actions.

In an AJC review of board orders dating back to July 2019, the AJC found the state board did take public action in some sexual misconduct cases. For example, it suspended the license of Dr. Zachary Forrest Solomon two months after he was arrested on a rape charge in Clarke County. According to court records, Solomon’s case is still pending and he is living in Pennsylvania while out on bond. But the board’s actions also showed its tendency to forgive physicians in documented cases of sexual misconduct.

In 2019, the Georgia Medical Composite Board lifted all restrictions on the license of Dr. Daniel Tesfaye, who had pleaded guilty to sexual battery, a misdemeanor, after a patient accused the doctor of placing his head on her breasts during an exam.
In 2019, the Georgia Medical Composite Board lifted all restrictions on the license of Dr. Daniel Tesfaye, who had pleaded guilty to sexual battery, a misdemeanor, after a patient accused the doctor of placing his head on her breasts during an exam.

In 2019, the board lifted all restrictions on the license of Dr. Daniel Tesfaye, who had pleaded guilty to sexual battery, a misdemeanor, after a patient accused the doctor of placing his head on her breasts during an exam. She had video to back up the claim. The doctor had faced complaints from patients in North Carolina years earlier, the AJC found in an investigation of the case. After Tesfaye’s criminal case, the Georgia board allowed him to keep practicing but required a chaperone with female patients and other conditions. Now, it has lifted all conditions.

In other cases, when physicians accused of sexual misconduct or other violations give up their license or allow it to expire, the board allows the doctors to take that action and keep the allegations hidden from the public.

Dr. Alexander Gross, a member of the Georgia medical board who also served on the national committee that studied sexual misconduct and issued recommendations for board across the country, said the new requirements for education should help prevent abuse in the first place, while mandatory reporting will also help the state licensing board find out about problems and take action when needed.

“We hope that the passage of this bill will make the public feel better,” Gross said. “I think that is part of the reason why the board asked the legislature to do this, to make the public feel more comfortable and confident that we’re doing our job appropriately.”

OUR REPORTING

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has closely covered Georgia’s medical licensing board for years to examine the board’s often secretive system of physician discipline. In 2016, the AJC published its Doctors & Sex Abuse series, a national investigation into lax punishment for physicians who molested, assaulted or harassed patients. The groundbreaking series exposed physician sexual misconduct in all 50 states.

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