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Sexual assault allegations against doctors increase, says MDU

Medical Defence Union

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Sexual assault allegations against doctors are unusual, but the number of cases is increasing, according to the Medical Defence Union (MDU).

Allegations of sexual assault against MDU members have increased by 66% over a recent 11 year period with 12 allegations in 2003 compared to 20 cases in 2013. In total there were 167 cases of doctors being accused of sexual assault over the 11 year period, with the majority of doctors being cleared after investigation.            

The MDU is reminding doctors of the importance of good communication with patients, particularly during examinations the patient may think are intimate, to avoid misunderstandings.

Dr Beverley Ward, MDU medico-legal adviser, said:

“Allegations of sexual assault against doctors are increasing although overall the number of cases remains very small – averaging around 15 cases per year in our experience. While in the vast majority of cases the doctor is cleared of any wrong doing, the investigations into the incident can be prolonged, damaging for the doctor’s career, and distressing for all involved. If the media pick up on the story it can be very upsetting as even if the doctor is later cleared, he may feel his reputation has been tainted.

“Cases usually arise as a result of a misunderstanding, for example a patient may not understand why a symptom in one part of the body may require an examination of another area. It’s important for the doctor to explain why an examination is necessary and what it involves. Doctors should also be sensitive to what patients may think of as an intimate examination and offer a chaperone if appropriate. It’s worth noting that a chaperone was not present for any of the sexual assault allegation cases notified to us in 2013.  

“In the unlikely event that a doctor becomes aware of a complaint alleging an inappropriate examination, it’s important to contact your medical defence organisation as soon as possible. The MDU has an experienced team of advisers and lawyers to represent the doctor and a dedicated press office who can liaise with the media.”

The MDU has issued advice1 to help doctors avoid misunderstandings when examining patients which includes:

  • Follow the GMC’s advice to doctors who need to perform intimate examinations and be aware of any local policies such as on offering a chaperone.

  • Ensure the patient knows what is involved in the examination when getting their consent.

  • Be aware that some patients may consider routine touching or even being close to them (such as performing ophthalmoscopy in a darkened room) as intimate and requiring a chaperone.

  • Give patients privacy to dress and undress and avoid any light hearted or personal comments.

  • Stop the examination if the patient asks you to, eg if they are experiencing discomfort.

  • Keep records of the discussion with the patient, why the examination was clinically indicated, that a chaperone was offered and whether the patient accepted or declined.

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