Bill would suspend sexually abusive doctors in Georgia

Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, introduced bill that would also require the state’s health care workers to report doctors who are known to abuse patients.

Doctors who sexually assault a patient would face a required license suspension or revocation under a new bill introduced at the Georgia General Assembly.

House Bill 1000, sponsored by Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, would also require the state's health care professionals to report a physician they believe has committed a sexual assault on a patient.

“My opinion is that any doctor who commits a sexual assault on a patient should at a minimum be suspended and probably should be a candidate for revocation,” Holcomb said.

Holcomb said he wasn’t confident that the Georgia Composite Medical Board takes such decisive action when determining how to discipline a doctor in a sex abuse case. “Part of that is because the board’s process is somewhat opaque,” Holcomb said,”and part of that is because the board in the past used to resort to sending doctors for treatment and hope that would solve the problem.”

In its award-winning 2016 investigation, "Doctors & Sex Abuse," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that the Georgia medical board routinely allowed doctors who sexually violated patient to stay in practice, while also using private actions in some cases involving sexual misconduct.

The AJC also found that Georgia, unlike many other states, does not require doctors to report colleagues they know are unfit to practice or have engaged in unprofessional conduct such as sexual abuse.

The cases of two doctors disciplined this month by the Georgia Composite Medical Board demonstrate that doctors who the board has forgiven went on to violate again.

The board this month indefinitely suspended the license of Dr. Narendra Patel, a gastroenterologist from Dalton, who was accused of improperly touching two patients. A Vanderbilt University assessment of the doctor, which was ordered by the board, found that Patel is “unfit to practice medicine with female patients”

This month’s action wasn’t the first time the medical board had dealt with the doctor.

In 1997, the doctor entered a guilty plea under Georgia’s First Offender Act to sexual battery involving a patient. The charge involved the doctor placing his mouth on a patient’s breast, according to the medical board’s disciplinary order.

That time, the board ordered a six-month suspension followed by a period on probation, which allowed the doctor to stay in practice. He was required during probation to undergo therapy and have a chaperone in the room when examining female patients. The board lifted the probation in 2003.

The board had ordered a temporary suspension of Patel's license in August, after it learned the conclusion of the Vanderbilt experts.

The board's forgiving attitude was also apparent in the case of Dr. Fred Gilliard, who voluntarily surrendered his Georgia medical license this month, according to documents made public this week on the board's website.

The board had agreed to relicense Gilliard in 2013, even though the doctor had twice served time in federal prison. In 1984, he was convicted on federal drug charges and was imprisoned for five years. In 1996, he was convicted in federal court for submitting false claims to Medicare and Medicaid when he was the CEO of a medical lab.

But Georgia let him practice again after he finished his sentence. He used his license to participate in another criminal enterprise. Earlier this year, the 76-year-old doctor pleaded guilty to distributing prescriptions for oxycodone.

Prosecutors said the drug was then sold by a group called Irish Travelers in Aiken County, South Carolina. Gilliard also pressured female patients for sex in exchange for prescriptions, according to The State, a South Carolina newspaper. 

After the AJC published its “Doctors & Sex Abuse” series, the Geogia medical board pledged to deal more aggressively with sexual misconduct. But Holcomb’s legislation would require that, along with forcing Georgia doctors to report troubled colleagues.

Holcomb said he has received positive feedback about his legislation. “I have received several communications from doctors who recognize a need for this legislative action,” he said.

Holcomb acknowledged that he introduced the bill late in the legislative session and he may be short on time to win passage this year. But he said he’s taken a two-year approach to other legislation, which has allowed him time to build support.

Holcomb in 2016 successfully sponsored a bill that requires Georgia law enforcement to find and count untested sexual assault evidence.

“I have worked on issues of sexual violence for several years now and what is clear to me is that this issue goes beyond the harm to the individual – which is significant,” Holcomb said. “There is also a societal impact that occurs when these crimes happen. What I want to do is address it when it occurs and just as importantly send a strong message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated in the state of Georgia.”