Tightening Sanctions for Physician Sexual Misconduct

November 07, 2018

Canadian Medical Association Journal News
By Brian Owens

lberta has become the latest jurisdiction to propose stricter sanctions for physicians found guilty of sexual misconduct with patients. Health minister Sarah Hoffman introduced a bill recently that would impose mandatory penalties, require more transparency from regulatory colleges and increase support for victims.

“Women, and all Albertans, deserve to feel safe when they put their trust in health care professionals,” Hoffman said in a statement. “For too long, Albertans were left in the dark about disciplinary histories, as we continued to hear disturbing stories of offending professionals being allowed to practise again.”

Under the proposed legislation, doctors or other health professionals found to have committed sexual abuse will have their licences revoked. A finding of sexual misconduct will result in licence suspension. No application for reinstatement could be made for five years. Regulatory colleges would be required to maintain public websites that include their members’ disciplinary history for sexual abuse and sexual misconduct, including conditions on practice permits.

Steve Buick, a spokesman for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, says the college is on board with the new legislation. “We’ve been consulted and had substantial input, and the legislation is well aligned with our own position,” he said.

The college already posts the results of disciplinary hearings on its website and has recently been pushing for stiffer penalties for sexual misconduct. For example, in a recent hearing a doctor was found guilty of professional misconduct, including inappropriate sexual relations with patients. The college wanted his licence to be revoked, but the hearing tribunal instead suspended him for 18 months and placed restrictions on his practice permit. The college is appealing the decision and pushing for revocation. “We are taking the very rare step of appealing our own tribunal,” said Buick.

Alberta is not alone in pursuing stiffer penalties for sexual misconduct. Hoffman’s bill is modelled on a similar law in Ontario that came into effect in May 2018, making those two provinces the only ones to introduce laws aimed specifically at protecting patients from sexual abuse. A bill signed into law in California in September requires doctors on disciplinary probation for sexual misconduct and other offences to notify their patients, making it the first state in the US to introduce that requirement.

Jerry Hill, the California State Senator who sponsored the bill, says proactive patient notification is necessary because 30% of physicians put on probation in California reoffend. Many are sole practitioners with no one to ensure they follow the terms of their sentence. The Medical Board of California already has an online registry that lists when and why doctors are on probation, but few people check it. “It takes a long time, and no one looks up their doctor,” says Hill. “They don’t know how, and medicine is such a well-respected profession that they don’t think to ask the question.” It’s something Hill now does as a matter of course, for both himself and his family, and he discovered that his daughter’s physician has been accused of prescribing opioids improperly.