One mistake, license permanently revoked

February 1, 2006

This time during her physical examination, the patient was certain that she was touched inappropriately.

It was a well known fact that Dr. Al had undergone a difficult divorce several years before. He openly discussed this with both his patients and his peers.

One patient saw Dr. Al every three months because she had a personal history of malignant melanoma. She was always impressed with the thoroughness of his full body skin examinations.

This time during her physical examination, the patient was certain that she was touched inappropriately. The patient became aghast and immediately demanded to know what her physician was doing. Dr. Al admitted to her that he had been inappropriate, apologized and asked her to recognize the difficulties his failed marriage had presented to him.

The patient filed a complaint with the State Board of Medical Examiners. The board sought to permanently revoke Dr. Al's license. He pleaded for mercy from both the board and his patient. She graciously testified on his behalf and asked that he only receive a reprimand and a requirement for counseling. The board refused and permanently revoked Dr. Al's medical license.

Did it take the right approach? What if Dr. Al appeals the decision to a state court?

An Ohio appeals court recently found that permanent revocation of a physician's license was a proper sanction following allegations of sexual abuse of a patient. The appeals court also found that the hearing afforded the doctor by his state medical board was in accordance with due process.

In a case with similar circumstances, John Schechter, M.D, a practicing psychiatrist, was notified by the Ohio State Medical Board that it intended to revoke his medical license based on allegations of improper sexual conduct of a patient.

Dr. Schechter requested a hearing by the board and such a hearing was granted. Dr. Schechter acknowledged his problem and admitted he victimized the patient and, by doing so, violated the standard that a physician owes his patients. Of note, the board listened to expert witnesses who testified that a patient who has been sexually abused would be "more vulnerable" and that such conduct by a physician was never within the standard of care. The board voted to permanently revoke Dr. Schechter's medical license and he appealed the revocation to the Ohio Court of Appeals. He argued that that board's findings were grossly excessive.

The Ohio Court of Appeals disagreed. It stated that the penalty imposed was not excessive or disproportionate to the prohibited acts committed by the doctor. Finding that the evidence against Dr. Schechter was overwhelming, the appeals court held the permanent revocation of his license was not contrary to law.

Dr. Al's permanent medical license revocation would probably also hold up to court challenge. Neither a state medical board nor a court is likely to be affected by the facts of Dr. Al's marital history. In addition, his patient's attempt to invoke reprimand and not license revocation will not help Dr. Al.

State medical boards are there to protect the public's trust in medicine. Their argument will be that medical license revocation is required to prevent Dr. Al from repeating his unacceptable behavior. It is unlikely that any court would reverse such a state medical board decision.

Dr. Goldberg is the director of SkinLaser & Surgery Specialists of New York and New Jersey; director of Mohs surgery and laser research, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine; and adjunct professor of law, Fordham Law School.