Context: Physicians who abuse their patients sexually cause immense harm, and, therefore, the discipline of physicians who commit any sex-related offenses is an important public health issue that should be examined.
Objectives: To determine the frequency and severity of discipline against physicians who commit sex-related offenses and to describe the characteristics of these physicians.
Design and setting: Analysis of sex-related orders from a national database of disciplinary orders taken by state medical boards and federal agencies.
Subjects: A total of 761 physicians disciplined for sex-related offenses from 1981 through 1996.
Main outcome measures: Rate and severity of discipline over time for sex-related offenses and specialty, age, and board certification status of disciplined physicians.
Results: The number of physicians disciplined per year for sex-related offenses increased from 42 in 1989 to 147 in 1996, and the proportion of all disciplinary orders that were sex related increased from 2.1% in 1989 to 4.4% in 1996 (P<.001 for trend). Discipline for sex-related offenses was significantly more severe (P<.001) than for non-sex-related offenses, with 71.9% of sex-related orders involving revocation, surrender, or suspension of medical license. Of 761 physicians disciplined, the offenses committed by 567 (75%) involved patients, including sexual intercourse, rape, sexual molestation, and sexual favors for drugs. As of March 1997, 216 physicians (39.9%) disciplined for sex-related offenses between 1981 and 1994 were licensed to practice. Compared with all physicians, physicians disciplined for sex-related offenses were more likely to practice in the specialties of psychiatry, child psychiatry, obstetrics and gynecology, and family and general practice (all P<.001) than in other specialties and were older than the national physician population, but were no different in terms of board certification status.
Conclusions: Discipline against physicians for sex-related offenses is increasing over time and is relatively severe, although few physicians are disciplined for sexual offenses each year. In addition, a substantial proportion of physicians disciplined for these offenses are allowed to either continue to practice or return to practice.