Sexual Abuse During Medical Care

Patients trust their medical professionals to do what is best for them, treating them with dignity and respect along the way. Unfortunately, sometimes even medical professionals use their position to abuse others. Sexual abuse may be committed by any kind of healthcare professional, in any setting, including by:

  • OBGYNs
  • Primary Care Physicians
  • Dentists
  • Internists
  • Nurses
  • Orderlies
  • Psychiatrists
  • Surgeons
  • Pediatricians

If you or a loved one has experienced sexual abuse at the hands of a medical professional, including your doctor, you may have grounds for a lawsuit. Read on to learn more about what you can do if you or someone you know have been the subject of abuse at the hands of a medical professional. 

What Constitutes Sexual Abuse During Medical Care?

According to the American Psychological Association, any unwanted sexual activity—which may occur through the perpetrator’s use of physical force or threats or from the survivor’s inability to give consent—is sexual abuse:

  • Inappropriate or non-consensual touching
  • Unwelcome sexual remarks or questions 
  • Unnecessary exams or procedures that involve sexual touching
  • Sexual activity or touching of unconscious patients

Patients who are unconscious or under the influence of medication that leads to conscious sedation are never able to consent to sexual activity, nor are minors. In fact, any sexual contact between doctors and current patients violates ethical standards. 

These ethical boundaries exist because of the amount of trust placed in doctors, and how easily that trust could be broken. Often, people are vulnerable with their medical professionals in ways they are not with anyone else. As of May 2020, the Federation of State Medical Boards categorizes sexual violations by health professionals into two categories:

  1. Sexual misconduct: This includes watching patients undress and making inappropriate sexual comments, including remarks that are demeaning or not medical in nature to patients about sexual matters, or performing examinations on a patient’s genitals without informed consent. 
  2. Sexual assault: Physician sexual assault includes sexual activity or contact without consent, including when the patient has been coerced or manipulated or is unable to give consent. This should always be reported to the proper authorities right away. 

Sexual assault under medical malpractice often goes unreported for several reasons: 

  • There can be a social stigma attached for sexual assault survivors.
  • There is a misconception that sexual assault only occurs within a specific demographic. In actuality, sexual assault affects people of all ethnicities, genders, and ages.
  • There is a misunderstanding about what constitutes “non-consent.” Often due to shock or out of fear of violence, a survivor may not explicitly say “no.” Some survivors may believe that not saying no means or implies consent.
  • There is a perception that no assault occurred because the attacker was nonviolent. For a sexual assault case to be warranted, it is not necessary for the attacker to be physically abusive. 
  • There is a lack of public awareness about what constitutes sexual abuse in a medical office or an exam room.

It is crucial you report sexual assault during medical care as the first step in your own individual recovery, and to protect future patients. For serious misconduct and sexual assault, it’s important to report the actions to law enforcement. State Medical Boards, your state’s Attorney General office,, joint commissions and quality improvement organizations are all agencies where you may also report your case and file a complaint.

In some cases, talking to your nurse or doctor can be a first step to resolve the issue. However, many patients may not feel comfortable taking that route and should report the misconduct to the doctor’s office, group, or hospital to alert them that there is an issue. Agencies can only take appropriate action to investigate abuse cases when a report is filed. Reaching out to an experience sexual assault attorney can also provide you with legal guidance. 

While it is also possible that doctors may be charged criminally for sexual abuse of current or even former patients, medical professionals may also be held liable through a lawsuit.

What Are the Signs of Sexual Abuse? 

If you or a loved one has experienced sexual abuse, no matter the circumstances, it is important to get help as soon as possible. Reach out immediately to the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline to talk with a trained responder near you right away. 

Physical signs of sexual abuse during medical care may be difficult to identify in some cases, but there are still indicators that can help you identify if the contact you or a loved one had with a healthcare provider was sexual abuse. 

Sexual abuse may result in trauma responses such as: 

  • Shock
  • Fear, paranoia, and general skittishness
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Inconsistent or erratic behavior
  • Substance abuse
  • Self-harm
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Other symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder

Cases of physician sexual abuse may go unreported because patients are confused about what they experienced, ashamed of the abuse, or unsure they will be believed against the word of an authority figure such as a doctor. Survivors are often not sure how to navigate the systems that allow them to seek justice for the abuse, from making a criminal complaint to filing a grievance with the state licensing board. As with all forms of sexual abuse, it is difficult to know just how many people are impacted each year. 

How Common Is Sexual Abuse Medical Malpractice?

Sexual assault of patients by their doctors is not uncommon. In fact, some reports estimate that approximately 5–10% of physicians have had some sort of boundary-violating sexual contact with a patient. A 2016 analysis of data from the U.S. National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) shows that 862 physicians between 2003 and 2013 had state licensing disciplinary actions against them because of sexual misconduct—and that’s after two-thirds of the complaints received by medical boards were closed before resulting in disciplinary action.

A number of reports have found that sexual abuse in healthcare is more commonly perpetrated:

  • In office-based settings
  • By practitioners of psychiatry
  • In primary care specialities
  • When patients are examined alone

A 2017 analysis of 101 cases of sexual abuse committed by physicians found that the abuse was repeated in 96% of cases, and in 58% of those cases it lasted for more than two years. This means that many patients who experience sexual abuse by a medical professional are repeatedly traumatized, which can make it even more difficult to reach out for help.

Janet, Janet & Suggs Fights for Survivors

Doctors and other healthcare workers are expected to follow many sets of rules. They must follow the rules of science, the rules of the law, and the rules of their license. Sometimes, patients may not always understand where one set of rules begins and one ends, even when it comes to knowing whether their sexual abuse case counts as malpractice. However, reaching out to an experienced law firm to discuss the details of your case, even when it’s difficult, can be a step toward healing and seeking justice.

Janet, Janet & Suggs is a nationally recognized team with more than 40 years of experience. We deeply understand the specific considerations surrounding cases of sexual abuse, and holding the offending parties accountable and delivering the justice families deserve is what we do. The compassionate abuse lawyers at JJS offer services on a contingency fee basis, which means you do not pay anything unless compensation is obtained on your behalf. 

JJS has extensive experience in the successful resolution of sexual abuse cases in medical settings including:

  • $842.4 Million | University of Southern California/Dr. George Tyndall Sexual Abuse
    This settlement on behalf of plaintiffs who brought litigation against USC related to sexual abuse, assault, and harassment by Dr. George Tyndall is the largest known settlement in a sexual abuse case in U.S. history, as well as the largest known personal injury settlement against a university.
  • $243.6 Million | University of California, Los Angeles/Dr. James Heaps Sexual Misconduct 
    This settlement, on behalf of 203 plaintiffs (of which JJS represented 27), is part of a larger group of settlements totaling nearly $700 million recovered from UCLA for their part in the sexual abuse, assault, and harassment of patients by Dr. Heaps.
  • $190 Million | The Johns Hopkins Hospital Sexual Abuse
    One of the largest in U.S. history for a case of this nature, this class action settlement was called “a historic day” not only for the victims of Dr. Nikita Levy but for the United States civil justice system. Johns Hopkins’ liability was founded on its failure to establish procedures and adequately oversee the care provided by its OBGYN department, including the presence of a chaperone during its pelvic examinations. This led to the sexual abuse of women through unnecessary gynecological/exams and illicit photos.

Contact our personal injury attorneys to schedule a consultation and learn more about your rights as a survivor.

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