The Federation of State Medical Boards has approved sweeping changes to its guidelines for handling doctors accused of sexually abusing patients, addressing many of the findings of a 2016 investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The new guidelines say state medical boards should be mindful that having an abusive doctor take an educational class is no assurance that patients will be protected, and that even a single case of sexual misconduct can be sufficiently egregious to warrant revocation of a physician’s medical license. Illustration by Ric Watkins for the AJC

New national guidelines take a hard-line stance on doctor sex abuse

On a unanimous vote, the Federation of State Medical Boards has approved a massive overhaul of its guidelines for disciplining physicians who sexually exploit patients, advising medical boards across the country to consider the terrible impact on victims and to stop shielding doctors from consequences.

The changes were prompted by groundbreaking investigative journalism that exposed the extent of the problem nationwide, more victims speaking out and the societal impact of #MeToo. In a Zoom meeting Saturday, the federation’s house of delegates voted to adopt a strongly-worded, 30-page set of guidelines, replacing a 14-page document adopted in 2006 that mostly described predator doctors as mentally impaired and in need of rehabilitation.

The federation is now calling on boards to turn offenders over to police and to eliminate private orders that prevent the public from knowing a doctor has been censured. FSMB also recommends making details of investigative findings and disciplinary actions available on states’ websites and removing barriers that discourage victims from filing complaints, among other reforms.

Though state boards aren’t required to follow the federation’s rules, its guidelines set national standards which boards often incorporate into their own policies. The Georgia Composite Medical Board has already formed a committee to start adopting the recommendations, according to board member Alexander Gross, a Cumming dermatologist who served on the special FSMB panel that developed the new guidance.

In Georgia, that could mean an end to vaguely-worded sanctions against licenses that talk about “boundary issues” or “professional standards,” but don’t spell out sexual misconduct. It could mean no more pretenses that an educational course or an order to use chaperones is sufficient to protect patients. And it could lead to fines for hospitals and health care systems that fail to inform the board of sexual abuse — something Dr. Gross said will require action by the Georgia legislature.

The FSMB panel began work on the new guidelines following The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s 2016 investigation that found thousands of doctors across the nation had sexually violated patients, and after an investigation by The Indianapolis Star on disgraced former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar.

“It has been made clear in academic publications and popular media, as well as through the #MeToo and TimesUp movements,” the new guidelines say, “that the public increasingly values transparency regarding disciplinary actions imposed on physicians.

“It is likely that any action short of a complete revocation of licensure will draw scrutiny from the public and popular media,” FSMB advises.

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