The first time I heard about a doctor raping a patient was during my third year of medical school. It was a Friday night and I was taking calls coming in to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center hotline. The woman on the other end of the phone spoke hesitantly at first, explaining that she was “having trouble sleeping.” Then her story tumbled out, her voice cracking with sobs under the weight of profound trauma.

Emily (not her real name) was raped by her surgeon 30 years ago after a routine hernia repair. She had avoided medical care ever since. That Friday afternoon, giving into her aging body’s needs, she had bitten the proverbial bullet and stepped into a doctor’s office for the first time since her rape. That simple act forced her to relive that traumatizing experience.

Doctor’s offices, with their cold, sterile exam rooms and flimsy patient gowns that expose both bodies and vulnerability, are uncomfortable spaces for most of us, seemingly the antithesis of sex. But I was shocked to learn that they could both trigger memories of rape and be the actual venues of it.

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The medical field, like popular culture, reinforces the physician-as-hero trope. Having answered their “life’s calling,” physicians are trustworthy, objective, selfless — even godlike. Doctors certainly do not rape, assault, or molest their patients.

But they do. The harrowing experiences of several hundred gymnasts who exposed Dr. Larry Nassar’s history of molestation under the guise of medical treatment demonstrates how he was able to sexually assault these young women because he was a doctor — using his trusted position and the safe confines of a doctor’s exam room.

Other doctors enabled Nassar’s predatory behavior. There was Dr. Gary Stollak, a clinical psychologist who heard about Nassar’s abuse from a former victim 14 years ago but did not report it; Dr. William Strampel, dean of the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, who imposed protocols for Nassar — including wearing gloves and having a chaperone for sensitive exams — but failed to enforce them; and Dr. Brooke Lemmen, who resigned from Michigan State after failing to tell the university that Nassar had informed her he was under investigation by USA Gymnastics.

I’m a physician now. The outrage I felt hearing these stories was accompanied by flashbacks to conversations with survivors like Emily. Sadly, women like her had not been able to garner national attention to punish the physicians who sexually violated them and the other health care professionals who were complicit in these heinous acts.

And they are not alone. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation in 2016 identified more than 2,400 cases of doctors across the country who had sexually assaulted their patients. The investigation found that half of these physicians were still licensed to practice medicine. One pediatrician assaulted as many as 1,000 young patients before being sent to prison.

The medical profession has failed these victims, too. Hospitals ignored reports of sexual assaults and encouraged offending physicians to resign rather than reporting them to medical boards or law enforcement. State medical boards aren’t always a good solution — they are often run by physicians who support their peers without oversight from nonphysician members to help ensure independent accountability.

Physicians’ disciplinary records are not always posted publically. And when they are, they commonly fail to describe the serious nature of sexual assault, using vague language like “boundary violation” or “unprofessional conduct.” In one case, a male physician who purposely did not wear gloves while conducting a rectal and vaginal exam of a female patient was reported for an “infection-control violation.”

Physicians, hospitals, and state medical boards can and should do more to protect patients from sexual assault. On a daily basis, patients allow doctors to invade their privacy, whether by placing a stethoscope on a naked chest, palpating a mass on a breast, or conducting a testicular exam. This should come with awareness of our privileged role and the incredible responsibility we have to uphold our pledge to “do no harm.”

We must confront the culture of medicine that dissuades physicians from reporting our colleague’s “bad behavior,” including conduct much less egregious than sexual assault. We must also advocate for independence in systems that hold physicians accountable.

At the same time, we must be respectful of survivors of sexual assault by strengthening our training around caring for them and ensuring that they feel comfortable seeking care in an environment that may have previously betrayed their trust. Whether or not the sexual abuse was committed by a physician, many practices and procedures performed in medical offices like gynecological exams — or even the removal of clothing — can trigger a post-traumatic reaction in a survivor of sexual assault. Health care providers should be equipped to offer support in these cases, acting as trauma-sensitive, trauma-responsive, and trauma-informed providers.

But as Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman said in her victim’s statement, “Talk is cheap.” I hope we can heed her words, and that our collective outrage over Nassar’s conduct leads to instrumental changes in the health care profession.

Altaf Saadi, M.D. is a first-year fellow at the National Clinical Scholars Program at UCLA.

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  • I myself have experienced significant trauma due to the actions of not just one, but three, physicians who practice in the small, isolated (no way in or out but by boat or air), and very challenging community I live in. And not only have they gotten away with this-it continues on to this day! As a sufferer of a rare, incurable CNS disorder, if I seek medical help, I truly need it! But as a result of the ugly and overtly abusive behavior of one of 2 of the physicians mentioned, I have experienced a rapid physical decline from an acute and legitimately documented issue and what started as “acute” has now become chronic and at this point, have had to engage in an honest to goodness fight for my life as symptoms aggressively progressed. And in this time, I have had these doctors actively work to create barriers for me in terms of getting the care I so desperately need. And I still won’t go to a doctor except under the sweetest of circumstances! Even being brought in by ambulance due to severe dehydration as well as other issues caused by the Acute GO issue I started seeking help addressing 2 YEARS AGO! And there has been no consequences for the horrifically abusive and ugly manner in which one particular doctor has behaved, going so far as to threaten me but only after making sure there was no one else in the exam room, no nurse or 3rd party to hold him to a professional standard of any kind (in the ED) as well as threaten my provider (a dedicated FEMALE PA who has always made me feel safe and done their best for me) as a means to cause me to lose all hope and now….as I can’t travel often or easily, I have no idea what is going to happen to me. Or if I will be able to hang on long enough to get as far from the one hospital within 200 miles of this community, which, to be fair-has a great group of medical professionals working there who also have to deal w/ the ugliness, abuse, and harassment of these same doctors. At least, if they want to keep their jobs-they can’t advocate for themselves or the patients they routinely see these 2 doctors abuse! The 3rd is in private practice and while I won’t discuss his actions (I AM seeking accountability, not revenge or prifit, so only dealing with my State’s Medical Board in regards to.That is the terrible and deeply traumatic situation so many patients ( more females than makes by far!) in my community face, allow these horrible things and be quiet….or you won’t be able to get (appropriate & vital!) HealthCare in THIS town! And everyone remains silent while I carry the weight of the “consequences” of speaking up, refusing to allow myself to be continuously harassed, degraded, and humi!Jared by these men, while one is a rotten person in general and abused their professional position regularly, the other that is a problem (very tight group in a small community!) is actively seeking to cause as much difficulty for me as possible outside the hospital, as well as in it. What happened to Hospitals being placed of refuge and safety for the I’ll and suffering? I don’t feel safe, and more woman than I can number in this community don’t either-not around either of those MD’s or anyone influenced by their bizarre and sick notions of what they have the “Right” and Power to inflict on patients who are already struggling to get medical attention! It’s disgusting and vile, I have lost ALL faith in and trust for the bulk of the medical community at this point, although reading this…I really hope there CAN be change that will actually happen and cut out the Cancer of Patient Abuse and allow Medical Professionals everywhere to regain the Public Trust. Thank you for coming forward as an ND yoursekf, that could not have been easy!

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