Are You Protected From Abusive Doctors? Maybe Not If You Live in 1 of These 10 States

At the end of the day, doctors are only human. They are very smart, but they also make mistakes that end up killing people. They can be compassionate people, but there are a few, like Larry Nassar, who are sexually abusive doctors.

Nassar, once the team doctor for USA Gymnastics, molested Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney and hundreds of other female gymnasts under the guise medical treatment. His years of abuse caught up with him and he was sentenced to 175 years in prison. But sexual abuse, in general, is all too common. Nassar is merely a high-profile example among sexually abusive doctors.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigated all 50 states and the District of Columbia to see how each location handles sexually abusive doctors. The investigators relied on laws identified by regulators, federal officials, patient advocates, and the newspaper’s own examination of thousands of doctor sex abuse cases nationwide. Then they assigned scores on a 100-point scale for transparency, duty-to-report laws, medical board composition, discipline laws, and a doctor’s criminal acts. The findings are troubling. Lawmakers can help protect patients from sexually abusive doctors, but these 10 states are leaving patients very vulnerable to abuse. We’ll show each state’s overall score and the component scores that contribute to the poor ranking as we work our way to the No. 1 worst state on the list.

10. South Carolina

Charleston, South Carolina, USA

South Carolina has weak duty-to-report laws.| Sean Pavone/iStock/Getty Images

Overall score: 50

  • Transparency: 54
  • Duty-to-report laws: 36
  • Board composition: 55
  • Discipline laws: 65
  • Criminal acts: 40

The individual scores in South Carolina aren’t great, but the worst is for the state’s duty-to-report laws. All medical facilities must report misconduct to medical boards, which is good news. The bad news is there is no hard deadline to report misconduct, doctors aren’t required to report their colleagues, and prosecutors don’t have to alert medical boards of any convictions.

Next: One dismal score drags down our next state.

9. Idaho

Welcome sign on the boarder to Idaho State

Idaho has the worst score in the country for doctor discipline laws. | oscity/iStock/Getty Images

Overall score: 49

  • Transparency: 48
  • Duty-to-report laws: 52
  • Board composition: 55
  • Discipline laws: 20
  • Criminal acts: 68

None of the other states on this list come close to Idaho’s strong score of 68 for criminal acts. Doctors must undergo background checks when applying for a license, and any doctor engaging in sexual contact with a patient faces up to a year in jail regardless of consent. But Idaho earns the worst score in the country for discipline laws. Medical boards are basically toothless. Revoking medical licenses after sexual abuse convictions isn’t mandatory, and state prosecutors need a slam dunk to make cases against sexually abusive doctors.

Next: Peer reporting isn’t required at our next stop, and that’s a bad thing.

8. Arkansas

A welcome sign marks the state line between Arkansas and Oklahoma

Arkansas earned a solid score for transparency, but is weak in other areas.| wellesenterprises/iStock/Getty Images

Overall score: 47

  • Transparency: 50
  • Duty-to-report laws: 38
  • Board composition: 50
  • Discipline laws: 36
  • Criminal acts: 60

Among the states on our list, Arkansas earns a solid score for transparency. But Arkansas’s duty-to-report and criminal acts laws are weak. Peers aren’t required to report sexually abusive colleagues, nor do prosecutors need to inform medical boards of criminal convictions. Likewise, if medical boards discover sexually abusive doctors they are not required to alert the authorities.

Next: Doctors don’t need background checks to practice in this state.

7. Hawaii

Waipio valley lookout on Hawaii Big Island

Doctors who apply for licenses in Hawaii don’t have to undergo background checks. | Vacclav/iStock/Getty Images

Overall score: 47

  • Transparency: 44
  • Duty-to-report laws: 56
  • Board composition: 55
  • Discipline laws: 60
  • Criminal acts: 20

A secessionist movement in Hawaii wants to break away from the United States and provide free health care for everyone. But what kind of health care would people receive? Hawaii is one of the worst states for doctor pay, and it’s one of the worst for protecting patients from sexually abusive doctors. Hawaii’s score for criminal acts in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation is dismal. Doctors applying for licenses don’t have to undergo background checks, but it gets worse. Medical boards don’t have to contact law enforcement about misconduct. Plus, the AJC says patients who reach out to medical boards about abuse are told to contact law enforcement themselves.

Next: Several below-average scores put our next state on the list.

6. South Dakota

sign board saying ' South Dakota'

South Dakota doesn’t do much to protect patients from abusive doctors. | iStock.com/wellesenterprises

Overall score: 47

  • Transparency: 46
  • Duty-to-report laws: 40
  • Board composition: 60
  • Discipline laws: 40
  • Criminal acts: 48

First, the good news in South Dakota: Hospitals and other health care facilities must tell the medical boards if doctors are suspended. Now the bad news: There’s no deadline to report and there aren’t any penalties for not reporting a suspension. Doctors who have their licenses revoked can apply for reinstatement after a year, but South Dakota doesn’t have any specific laws applying to sexually abusive doctors.

Next: One key fact will make you think twice about seeing the doctor in this western state.

5. Utah

The Beehive State got poor marks for criminal activity. | Garrett/Creative Commons

Overall score: 47

  • Transparency: 48
  • Duty-to-report laws: 46
  • Board composition: 50
  • Discipline laws: 55
  • Criminal acts: 36

Utah doesn’t receive strong scores in any area, but its marks for criminal activity are particularly poor. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution finds medical boards aren’t required to report a doctor’s criminal activity unless it’s threat to public safety. But that’s not even the worst part. The investigators report Utah state law doesn’t prohibit registered sex offenders from holding medical licenses. In 2016, one doctor renewed a license after being convicted of sexual exploitation of a minor in 2012. That’s one of the reasons why Utah is one of the worst states for protecting patients from sexually abusive doctors.

Next: This state claims it’s working to improve its scores.

4. Oklahoma

Oklahoma City area on a map

Medical boards in Oklahoma are making it easier for patients to find information about doctors, which is good news. | iStock.com/Manakin

Overall score: 46

  • Transparency: 34
  • Duty-to-report laws: 44
  • Board composition: 68
  • Discipline laws: 50
  • Criminal acts: 36

In Oklahoma, any medical provider that suspends a doctor’s privileges for 30 days or more must alert the medical boards. That sounds good, but there aren’t any penalties for not following through. Plus, doctors don’t have to report peers and law enforcement doesn’t have to tell medical boards about physician convictions. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigators also give Oklahoma a poor score for transparency. Yet the medical boards there are working to make sure that patients can easily find information about disciplinary action against doctors.

Next: Things could remain bad in this state for a while.

3. Louisiana

Venice, Louisiana, doc

Doctors aren’t required to report their peers’ wrongdoing. | MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Overall score: 43

  • Transparency: 44
  • Duty-to-report laws: 40
  • Board composition: 28
  • Discipline laws: 65
  • Criminal acts: 36

Louisiana is one of the worst states for teachers. New Orleans is one of the most dangerous vacation destinations in the world. Now we find Louisiana is one of the worst states for protecting patients from sexually abusive doctors. Among the several low scores, the worst is for the makeup of the medical board. No public official sits on the medical board in Louisiana. A 2017 law restricts which medical groups get to nominate board members. Plus, doctors don’t have to report peers, and health care groups only need to alert the medical board if doctors practice under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The lax laws on the books seem unlikely to change given the composition of Louisiana’s medical board.

Next: We head to a state where discipline is secret and there is hardly any punishment at all.

2. Wyoming

The sun hits the tips of the Grand Tetons October 5, 2012 in the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Grand Teton National Park is located in northwestern Wyoming. Approximately 310,000 acres (130,000 ha) in size, the park includes the major peaks of the 40-mile (64 km) long Teton Range as well as most of the northern sections of the valley known as Jackson Hole. Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

In Wyoming, doctors won’t necessarily lose their license if they’re convicted of sexual misconduct. | Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Overall score: 43

  • Transparency: 34
  • Duty-to-report laws: 48
  • Board composition: 80
  • Discipline laws: 23
  • Criminal acts: 28

Wyoming’s score from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigators comes in second-to-last. But the state could be the worst for protecting patients from sexually abusive doctors. Wyoming requires overwhelming evidence to convict a doctor of any crime, including sexual assault. Plus, Wyoming doesn’t require a doctor to have a license stripped after a sexual misconduct complaint or conviction. And even if the medical board revoked the license, the doctor can ask for reinstatement six months later. Not only that but issuing a license to a convicted doctor is solely up to the medical board.

Next: Far and away, this is the worst state for protecting you from sexually abusive doctors.

1. Mississippi

Welcome to Mississippi

In Mississippi, doctors aren’t required to report fellow doctors for misconduct.| Meinzahn/iStock/Getty Images

Overall score: 37

  • Transparency: 30
  • Duty-to-report laws: 36
  • Board composition: 30
  • Discipline laws: 55
  • Criminal acts: 36

Mississippi doesn’t have any specific criminal laws pertaining to sexually abusive doctors. It’s just one thing that makes it the worst state. Mississippi also fails patients in several other ways. Doctors aren’t required to report fellow doctors for misconduct. Law enforcement doesn’t have to alert the medical board of doctors’ convictions. And the medical board doesn’t have to alert law enforcement of any criminal conduct. Not only that, but it’s up to the executive director of the medical board if a patient’s complaint about a doctor progresses to any level of deeper investigation.

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