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Atlanta Paper Investigates Doctors Who Sexually Abuse Patients

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When we visit a doctor, we inevitably make ourselves vulnerable. Most physicians would never betray that trust. But a new investigative report by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reveals that many do.

Carrie Teegardin is part of the team that spent a year digging into medical board documents from all 50 states. We should warn you that what she found might be disturbing to some listeners. She told us one story of a doctor in Kentucky who was caught sexually abusing his patient.

CARRIE TEEGARDIN: She has an infection on her abdomen. And the doctor is looking at that and then comments that - oh, she has sexy underwear. Then he starts rubbing her genitals and places his mouth there.

I mean, the patient had to push him away. When she confronted him later while being tape recorded, his comment was - it was so beautiful, I just couldn't resist. And that physician was returned to practice.

GREENE: Is practicing today.

TEEGARDIN: Yes.

GREENE: How did that happen?

TEEGARDIN: Well, that's how the system works.

GREENE: Under the system in some states, when abusive doctors are reported to medical boards, they don't always lose their jobs. In fact, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that medical regulators increasingly view sexual misconduct by doctors as the symptom of an impairment rather than cause for punishment. The doctors are sent to therapy. Often, their licenses are quickly reinstated.

TEEGARDIN: Often, they're required to take lie detector tests where they're asked, you know, have you done anything inappropriate with patients? They have to have a chaperone in the room. But they don't have to tell their patients why that person is there.

You would have no idea in most cases. We also found that a lot of what's going on - the extent of it is a knowable for us. We've found hundreds, thousands of cases.

But we also found that doctors are disciplined by the medical boards in private orders - may be required to do certain things. But there would be absolutely no way that potential patients would even know.

GREENE: Are there people defending the status quo and saying this is just a reality that everyone needs to deal with?

TEEGARDIN: Oh, definitely. This is how these cases have been handled. And they think they've been handled very successfully. They say that the treatment is very effective and that once doctors have gone through this, it's unlikely that they will reoffend. Throughout our reporting, we were reminded of the scandal in the Catholic Church.

GREENE: You're making the comparison because one of the arguments was that priests who committed the sexual assaults - that they were ill and that it wasn't necessarily a crime. And that should be handled as an illness to be treated.

TEEGARDIN: And they were sent to another parish. And then the same thing would happen again. I think what we noticed was - OK, if this were a teacher - these days, if this were a priest - if this were a coach, would we say it's OK for you to go off and get treatment and then come back to the classroom?

Every other part of society - we have very little tolerance for sexual misconduct. And so I think that's what struck us as so unique about the way these cases were handling. It was a special privilege. You know, doctors have privileges. They have a lot of trust.

And they have a lot of training. But we also found that they were kind of enjoying a special privilege in how these allegations tended to be handled.

GREENE: I mean, there are times when you hear people who have been assaulted say that they did not want to go to the police for different reasons. You know, a medical board - is it their place to actually go to the police? Or does that become really problematic here?

TEEGARDIN: In some states, they're required to notify police if they feel a crime has taken place. In other states, they're not. And some ethicists and medical board members feel that that should be left up to the patient. The patient's identity is generally, in terms of public documents, protected.

GREENE: I mean, if people are listening and wondering about if this could ever happen to them, do you have some advice on what they could do - what they should do?

TEEGARDIN: One thing that is really important is that if your doctor - especially a doctor of the opposite sex - is doing an exam on your intimate parts, that person should have another person in the room. There should be a medical assistant, a nurse.

GREENE: And you feel like that's something reasonably that you could ask for if you're a patient. Just say, I would feel more comfortable if...

TEEGARDIN: It's expected in most states to have a, quote, "chaperone" in the room, again, if it's an opposite-sex physician. Some doctors feel it's appropriate even if it's a same-sex physician. And I think that's expected.

GREENE: Carrie Teegardin, thank you very much for talking to us about this.

TEEGARDIN: Thank you, David. I really appreciate it.

GREENE: Carrie Teegardin is an investigative reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The paper has a series out this week on doctors and sex abuse. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.