Commentary Violence

When Doctors Abuse Patients, Hospitals Must Make Good on Their Promise to ‘Do No Harm’

Mallory McMaster

Letting a doctor accused of rape continue to treat patients, as the Cleveland Clinic did, is as significant a risk to patient safety as a fall or a medication error.

First, do no harm.

At the beginning of their careers, physicians swear via the Hippocratic oath to do whatever it takes to protect their patients and abstain from causing them harm.

The Cleveland Clinic would do well to remember this oath because the clinic, an internationally known health-care institution, has let us down—its patients, its staff, and our community—by turning a blind eye to allegations of sexual abuse by one of its doctors. In January, USA Today published a shocking report claiming that the famed clinic failed to act when presented with evidence that a colorectal surgeon, Ryan Williams, allegedly raped two of his patients. The health-care giant kept the accused rapist on staff and offered confidential financial settlements to prevent his victims from speaking out.

Now it’s time for the Cleveland Clinic, health-care systems, and the medical profession to do better—specifically, to acknowledge that health-care providers can be perpetrators and to abandon business-as-usual practices that value their reputations over their patients.

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This story has been on my mind as I watched the trial of Dr. Larry Nassar, former team physician for the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. He recently pled guilty to molesting ten young girls under his care, though the number of known victims has risen to more than 150.

But the Cleveland Clinic cases have also been on my mind because I include myself in that “us” whose trust has been violated. The Cleveland Clinic has long been a part of my life.

When I was 5, my father was dying of heart disease and out of local treatment options. As a last-ditch effort, he turned to the Cleveland Clinic for help. Physicians there rose to the challenge and performed a complicated experimental surgery that gave my father another 15 years with his family. After the surgery, he and my mother spent three months there recovering, and they received amazing care from not just physicians, but nurses, nurses’ aides, physical therapists, chaplains, and social workers.

This experience made me want to become a nurse, and later, I moved to Cleveland to become a caregiver on the colorectal surgery nursing unit at the Cleveland Clinic. During my three years with the Cleveland Clinic, the last two in an administrative role, I met thousands of other caregivers with stories like mine. It didn’t matter if they were janitors or customer service representatives or world-renowned surgeons, they took great pride in providing world-class care.

So I was appalled when I heard about the accusations against Dr. Ryan Williams—and the clinic’s response.

The Cleveland Clinic learned about the alleged rapes when a victim reported her horrifying ordeal after an April 2008 exam. During that exam, Dr. Williams had inserted his penis in her rectum, she said, and she saw him holding it in his hand when she jumped away. She ran screaming from the room, without her pants. Williams’ medical assistant told police that when the victim asked Dr. Williams why he raped her, he replied, “I don’t know.” Police declined to pursue charges against Williams, despite finding traces of semen in the exam room, which Williams admitted was his; he said he masturbated in the room to relieve stress. The Cleveland Clinic allowed Dr. Williams to continue seeing patients after this, and another patient reported a strikingly similar incident during a procedure with the surgeon a year later.

Dr. Williams remained employed at the Cleveland Clinic for nearly a decade.

Doctors sexually assault their patients surprisingly often. In fact, Dr. Williams isn’t even the only member of his own family to be accused of sexually assaulting patients. Williams’ twin brother, Dr. Bryan Williams, had his medical license permanently revoked in 2017 after being accused of sexual assault by seven different patients.

And make no mistake: It’s not just these siblings. A 2017 report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution examined more than 6,000 cases of sexual misconduct among 2,400 doctors and found that a staggering two-thirds of physicians were permitted to continue practicing even when clear, indisputable evidence of their sexual violence was shared with regulatory bodies. Astonishingly, half of the 2,400 doctors who were disciplined for sexual misconduct between 1999 and 2017 are still licensed to practice medicine today.

Oftentimes, victims are forced to sign confidentiality agreements when they accept financial settlements from their abusers’ employers. That makes it hard for people to learn the truth about the doctors they trust. Doctors and hospitals aren’t required to tell patients if one of their doctors has a history of or is currently being disciplined for sexual misconduct. That leaves patients unbelievably vulnerable to violence, trauma, and abuse at the hands of repeat offenders.

Letting a rapist remain in a position of power over potential victims is as significant a risk to patient safety as a fall, a medication error, or hand-hygiene-related infection transmission. With the use of these settlements, the clinic decided not to give its caregivers and patients the information they need to make informed decisions. Their actions might have been legally sound, but they were ethically irresponsible.

If hospitals refuse to shield patients from sexual abuse and hold their employees accountable when crimes are committed, how can they possibly expect patients to feel safe seeking their services? If health-care providers aren’t sure if the physician to whom they’re referring patients won’t hurt people, are they able to provide the best possible care for the patients they serve?

The medical community needs to hold doctors accountable. Whether patients are seeking a colonoscopy, breast augmentation, abortion, or a heart transplant, they must be able to trust their health-care providers. It’s time for the medical community to address this problem once and for all, and with the same level of enthusiasm it seems to have for solving problems that affect their bottom line. Hospitals must react to sexual assault claims quickly and thoroughly, and immediately stop using financial incentives to force victims into silence. Hospitals need to be transparent with medical associations and the abusers’ colleagues when allegations of sexual abuse are made.

Until these changes are made, people are going to keep being hurt and abused. We all deserve better than that.

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