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How to respond to suspicions of sexual misconduct in a doctor’s office

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | The Workplace
  • Updated: January 21, 2018
  • Published January 21, 2018

Q: I work in a medical clinic. A supporting staff member is supposed to work alongside any physician in a room with a sedated female patient, but we're short-staffed and so this doesn't always happen. Twice in the last year I entered a room in which one of our physicians appeared to being acting inappropriately.

It happened again this morning. It's a senior physician and he appeared to have been masturbating. I can't wrap my head around this because it seems impossible that any physician would do this when a staff member could walk in on him. What do I do and will I lose my job if I say something and am wrong?

A: Given the reputation damage a false accusation can cause, you need to make sure you're basing your concern on facts. What exactly did you see? At the same time, reputation damage pales in comparison to the consequences a sexually assaulted patient experiences. When colorectal surgeon Ryan Williams allegedly raped a patient, she afterwards reported being "overwhelmed by feelings of horror" and "terrified to leave" her apartment much of the time.

Although this type of assault seems improbable, it happens. In 1991, Anchorage physician Dr. Kenneth Ake pleaded guilty to charges that he sexually assaulted five patients while they were conscious and on the examining table with a cloth draped over them that obscured his actions.

Williams, the colorectal surgeon, worked at one of the nation's largest and most renowned hospitals, which kept the surgeon on staff after reaching a confidential settlement. According to USA Today, doctors accused of sexual assaults are regularly unaffected professionally and hospitals often take over doctors' liability in confidential settlements. The recently passed tax legislation includes a provision that ends corporations' ability to deduct attorney fees and settlement payments in sexual harassment or abuse cases if there is a nondisclosure agreement.

Employees who make good faith allegation when they see potential crimes or discrimination activities are generally protected against retaliation. "If you saw the physician doing something akin to masturbation in the workplace" says Anchorage employment attorney Bill Evans, "the laws against sexual harassment protect you. If you're then terminated for reporting a potentially criminal act, you have a viable claim for retaliation or wrongful termination in violation of public policy."

Finally, before you remain a silent witness, consider the consequences. Can you live with yourself knowing that you've seen something that you should have reported – knowing another patient might suffer?

Q: I'm worried about a good friend who works for an insecure supervisor who's jealous of her. My friend is talented, assertive and confident. She doesn't suffer fools lightly and is tired of biting her tongue when this supervisor unfairly nit-picks her.

I'd like to help; what should I tell my friend?

A: An insecure, jealous supervisor can cause long-term career damage. If the situation is as you report, suggest your friend vote with her feet and find a new job.

Alternatively, you need to realize you see only the picture your friend paints. What does "not suffer fools lightly" mean? Many individuals who "bite their tongues" wear their self-righteous thoughts on their face. Does your friend treat her supervisor poorly and then call you to complain, so you can support her one-sided finger-pointing? While it's great that you listen supportively, you may need to ask your friend more questions about what she's doing to cause the problems she's experiencing – and what she can do to fix them.

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