Too Many Patients Are Also Saying #MeToo

Sexual harassment and violence is so engrained in our everyday experience it sometimes feels inescapable:

You’ve been sexually harassed at work?
Me too.

You were sexually assaulted at school?
 Me too.

Your doctor sexually assaulted or harassed you?
You might be surprised, but many are saying me too.

The #MeToo movement, started by Tarana Burke, has been the spark to some real change, particularly in the workplace. But, this change hasn’t happened in health care.  Yet.
Here at the National Women’s Law Center I hear stories of women being sexually harassed or assaulted by their health care providers nearly every day through the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund/Legal Network for Gender Equity.
And we aren’t the only ones hearing from patients who have been harassed or assaulted by a health care provider. According to the New York Times, sexual assault and harassment by health care providers is happening all across the country:

  • A California provider placed a chair against the exam room door to keep people from coming in and sexually assaulted his patient.
  • Another patient went to see a provider for neck pain after a car accident, and the provider reached under her shirt and groped her during the exam.
  • And who can forget Larry Nassar, the former doctor for the U.S. Olympic gymnastics program who abused more than 150 women and girls?

Even with so many patients saying #MeToo, the push to hold people accountable for sexual assault and harassment seems to have largely skipped over health care. A 2016 report showed that of the 253 doctors reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank for having been sanctioned by a hospital or health care organization for sexual misconduct or paid a settlement that came from an allegation of sexual misconduct, 170 of them were NOT disciplined or held accountable in any way by state medical boards. That means some of these providers were able to keep their medical license and keep practicing even after sexually harassing or assaulting their patients. For example,

  • In Arkansas, a provider was allowed to keep his family practice open so long as he’s chaperoned, despite facing multiple criminal charges for rape.
  • In Idaho, the State Board of Medicine reinstated the license of a child and adolescent psychiatrist who lost his license after the board accused him of having sexual relationships with four former patients.

We are saying enough. TIME IS UP on that.
Sexual assault or harassment by a provider is not just wrong and devastating to patients–it is also unlawful sex discrimination in health care. Such discrimination is prohibited by the Affordable Care Act’s Health Care Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, and sex in any health program that receives federal funding. Almost all hospitals, health clinics, and doctor’s offices are covered by this law.
Every patient should be able to get the care they need free from harassment or discrimination. In addition to other legal claims you might have, if you or someone you know has been discriminated against in violation of the Health Care Rights Law, you have various legal options available to you. People can go directly to court to stop acts of discrimination and get compensation for any injuries they suffer due to discrimination. You can also file a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights, which is supposed to work with covered programs to prevent discrimination from happening in the first place and to remedy discrimination that has already occurred.
And you can always call us. If you think you have been discriminated against, you can contact the National Women’s Law Center through the Legal Network for Gender Equity at (202) 319-3053 or