Sanctions against sexual abuse of patients by doctors: sex differences in attitudes among young family physicians.
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OBJECTIVE: To explore attitudes of new-to-practice certified family physicians in Ontario concerning sanctions against sexual abuse of patients by physicians and to assess the importance of concern about accusations of sexual abuse in influencing clinical decisions. DESIGN: Qualitative study and cross-sectional survey. SETTING: Ontario. PARTICIPANTS: Focus groups: 34 physicians who completed family medicine residency training between 1984 and 1989 participated in seven focus groups between June and October 1992. SURVEY: all certificants of the College of Family Physicians of Canada who received certification between 1989 and 1991 and were currently practising in Ontario. Of the 564 eligible physicians 395 (184 men and 211 women) responded, for an overall response rate of 70.0%. The response rates among the male and female physicians were 70.5% and 69.6% respectively. OUTCOME MEASURES: Physicians' attitudes toward restricting physical examinations done by physicians to same-sex patients, mandatory reporting of sexual impropriety and loss of licence in cases of sexual violation and the perceived importance of concern about accusations of sexual abuse as an influence on clinical decisions. RESULTS: During the focus groups male physicians in particular expressed concerns about the effect on their practice patterns of the current climate regarding sexual abuse of patients. Female physicians were less concerned about possible accusations of sexual abuse but expressed concerns regarding possible sexualization of the clinical encounter by male patients. In the survey equal proportions of men (163 [93.7%]) and women (191 [92.3%]) disagreed with restricting examinations to same-sex patients. The women were more likely than the men to agree that all suspected cases of sexual impropriety committed by other physicians should be reported (121 [58.7%] v. 86 [50.0%]), whereas the men were more likely to disagree (48 [27.9%] v. 32 [15.5%]) (p = 0.008). The women were also more likely than the men to agree that physicians should lose their licence permanently if they were found guilty of sexual violation (125 [62.2%] v. 73 [43.5%]), whereas the men were more likely to disagree (61 [36.3%] v. 37 [18.4%]) (p < 0.001). Almost half of the men (80 [46.5%]) but only 28 women (14.1%) reported that concerns about accusations of sexual abuse were of importance in their clinical decisions (p < 0.001). CONCLUSIONS: Young female family physicians practising in Ontario are much more likely than their male counterparts to endorse permanent loss of licence for physicians who sexually abuse patients and are significantly less concerned about accusations against themselves. Neither sex endorses only same-sex examinations by physicians. Educational approaches to protect patients while ensuring that appropriate care continues to be delivered are essential.
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