Doctors and nurses are the most trusted professionals by Australians, which is why sexual abuse or assault by health professionals is such a gross misuse of power.
“Sadly, we are seeing an increase in enquiries from women, in particular, who have been sexually abused by a medical practitioner,” says Leanne McDonald, National Practice Leader – Abuse Law.
“This trend is extremely concerning.”
When a doctor, nurse, psychologist or any medical professional sexually abuses a patient, they unmistakably breach their legal responsibility to ensure the patient’s wellbeing.
If you have suffered sexual abuse by a doctor or any health professional, it’s important that you know how to report the abuser if you choose to do so.
Here’s how to recognise sexual abuse by a health professional, why it occurs and how we can help survivors of sexual abuse.
What is considered sexual assault or sexual abuse by doctors?
In a medical setting, sexual abuse by health professionals such as a doctor or nurse may include conduct like:
- touching patients in a sexual manner without consent
- engaging in sexual behaviours while a patient is present
- requiring patients to remove clothes for examinations without clinical reasoning continuing to perform an examination on a patient after they have withdrawn consent
- breaching the privacy of patients, including photographing examinations without consent.
If you’ve experienced any of these scenarios, you may have been sexually abused or assaulted. Survivors of sexual assault often suffer trauma, which can manifest in feelings like fear, anxiety or depression.
If you need help or someone to talk to, consider reaching out to these counselling support services:
- Bravehearts 1800 272 831
- Blue Knot Foundation 1300 657 380
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Mensline Australia 1300 789 978
- Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
- beyondblue 1300 224 636
How can a doctor abuse their patients?
To further shift power towards the health professional, most people don’t have as well developed an understanding of medical issues, even ones they are affected by. They are reliant on health professionals for treatment and may be afraid to voice concerns about inappropriate conduct in case it affects their access to medical services and risks their health.
“Unfortunately, there are a number of medical professionals in positions of power, such as doctors, nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists, who have sexually assaulted vulnerable patients and breached their duty of care,” says Leanne.
Guidelines for the doctor-patient relationship in Australia
There are strict regulatory guidelines on what is appropriate within the doctor-patient relationship in Australia.
Health practitioners including doctors are regulated by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra).
In addition to the abuse and assault scenarios raised above, Ahpra lists several further examples of conduct which would breach sexual boundaries including:
- engaging or seeking to engage in a sexual relationship with a patient regardless of whether the doctor believes the patient consented
- sexual humour or flirtatious behaviour
- using words or acting in a way that might reasonably be interpreted as being designed or intended to arouse or gratify sexual desire
- asking a patient about their sexual history or preferences, when these are not relevant to their healthcare and without explaining why it is necessary to discuss these matters.
If any of the above are familiar and you think a health professional has breached their professional obligations, you can submit a concern online to Ahpra for investigation.
“It is imperative that patients who have been dealt with inappropriately by a medical practitioner know how to report what happened to them if they choose to do so,” says Leanne.
How Shine can help survivors of sexual assault by doctors
If you or a loved one has been sexually abused while receiving medical treatment and have suffered a resulting psychiatric injury or illness, our Abuse Law experts can offer considered, compassionate legal service. A successful Abuse Law claim for compensation can result in the means to accessing restorative support services like counselling – to help you moved forward.
Shine Lawyers’ Abuse Law practice have acted for more than 20 patients sexually assaulted by health professionals. Our lawyers are trained to provide compassionate, considered legal advice to survivors of sexual abuse. We understand the importance of providing legal assistance in a respectful and empathetic manner, especially given the lifelong toll abuse can take.
If you’d like to talk to our Shine Lawyers Abuse team about your experience, we offer confidential, obligation-free consultations to anyone considering taking legal action against abusers in healthcare. Contact us to arrange your initial discussion with our Abuse Law experts today.
Resources for sexual abuse survivors
Support, advice and information is available to people affected by sexual abuse from:
Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: September 20, 2021.