If your superior at a hospital advises you that a patient has made a complaint that you have touched her in an inappropriate sexual manner, be sure that you understand that your entire career may suddenly be in jeopardy. There is nothing more dangerous to you as a health care provider than this type of allegation. So, what should you do when this situation arises?
The first thing you have to do is be aware of exactly how serious this situation can be. While you will be close to being in shock as you listen to what is being said to you, keep your wits about you and be absolutely certain you understand the entire situation before you say a word. Bear in mind that the person telling you about the claim is listening very carefully to your reaction. This person will probably be taking notes so that your initial response can be preserved. What you say may be helpful to you or may make people think that the allegation is true. Stay calm and be sure your denial of this act, or acts, is clear and unequivocal.
In most hospitals you will be required to present a written response to the allegations. To do this you should consult a lawyer who is very experienced in these types of issues. You require someone who is not emotionally involved in the situation and, therefore, is a person who can look at the situation rationally and can help you draft a coherent, measured and logical response to the patient’s complaint.
We were recently contacted by a physician who was required to give this written response to a very articulately written complaint of sexual touching during a hysterosalpingogram procedure. The woman wrote a complaint to the hospital administration that was lengthy, detailed and expressed a great deal of moral indignation. Our job was to craft a response that would set forth the physician’s statement of facts that would convince the hospital administration of the truth of the matter, that is, that this alleged misconduct never took place.
We started by setting forth the doctor’s experience doing this type of procedure and then gave a very detailed explanation of exactly how this procedure is done. This discussion demonstrated precisely how close to a woman’s vaginal area the physician is throughout the procedure. We pointed out how the physician has to hold a catheter that is in the woman’s cervix and how the woman has to turn to the left and right for an additional series of x-rays. The physician’s hands are, by definition, almost inside the vagina. Therefore, it is quite reasonable for the woman to feel the doctor being in contact with her vagina. But that is simply the way the test has to be done to be correctly accomplished.
We then commented on each point the woman made in her letter and demonstrated how what she thought was improper touching by the doctor was instead the unavoidable contact that had to be done to complete the procedure.
Our response ended not by calling the patient a liar, but by having the doctor express his sorrow that the patient actually felt that he had violated her in a sexual manner when, in fact, the doctor did not do what she had alleged.
This event came to an end two weeks later when the hospital sent the doctor a letter stating that he was completely exonerated from the accusations. To say that the doctor was relieved is a gross understatement.
The lesson to be learned is that when you are faced with a potentially career-ending false allegation of sexual misconduct, you have to muster all of the professional resources you can find to put forth your position to prove that this claim is not valid. Your entire professional life is in the balance.
Please note that while the doctor’s position at the hospital is safe, this matter may not be over by a long shot. The patient may file charges against the physician with the New York State Department of Health, Office of Professional Medical Conduct (OPMC). OPMC must investigate all complaints filed against physicians. If this patient does file with OPMC, we will no doubt have to appear at an interview with the physician to explain, once again, his side of the story.
It is also possible that the patient could file a criminal complaint with the District Attorney’s office. There might well be another very anxiety-provoking conversation.
Lastly, there might be a civil lawsuit brought by the patient against the physician and the hospital. That will require perhaps three years of litigation and more anxiety.
As one can see, there is a great deal riding on defending oneself without reservation from the start of a complaint of sexual misconduct. You are innocent, but proving that must begin at the start, with professional assistance.