Monday, June 4, 2018

Doctor-patient sex and professional self-regulation

The topic that has attracted the largest readership on this blog is doctor-patient sex. In the past 10 years the 29 posts I've written on the topic have received 75,000 hits. An article in today's Boston Globe focuses on an aspect I've discussed only briefly thus far - professional self regulation.

The story concerns a complaint from Ms. Lisa Grover that Dr. Melvin Rabin, the psychologist she sought out when her marriage broke up, drew her into a sexual relationship. Grover's allegations dramatize the way "boundary crossings" like calling the patient at home "just to talk," calling the patient a "special person," and hugging at the end of the appointment, can lead, over time, to "boundary violations" like sex. Apparently Grover brought a malpractice action against Rabin which, the article reports, was "settled for an undisclosed sum."

In February 2016 Grover complained to the Massachusetts Board of Registration of Psychologists, but the case is still "open" and Dr. Rabin's license is still unrestricted.

A core component of the implicit contract between the health professions and society is that in exchange for the autonomy and trust society gives to the professions, the professions will regulate themselves with regard to quality and integrity. Two years is much too long for a professional board to leave a serious complaint like Ms. Grover's unsettled.

In dealing with complaints of the kind Ms. Grover brought, a board must consider three values:

First and foremost, safety for patients. If the board believes Ms. Grover's accusations, it should have suspended Dr. Rabin's license. A therapist who acted as Ms. Grover describes should not have an unrestricted license, which allows unrestricted, unmonitored access to patients. What Ms. Grover describes, if true, is very serious misconduct.

But second, a board must also recognize that complaints are not necessarily true. The board must consider fairness to the accused.

I know this first hand.When I joined the Harvard Community Health Plan practice in 1975, one of my first patients was a sensitive and vulnerable young woman with a mild autism spectrum disorder. The treatment was proceeding well until I cancelled an appointment because I was going away. My patient contacted the psychiatry board to complain that I had molested her. Psychologically my cancellation felt to her like a "molestation." By the time I heard from the board my patient and I had resumed meeting and the treatment was again on track. She explained that she had been upset by the cancellation and apologized for what she said to the board. I didn't appreciate at the time just how serious a threat a false accusation could be.

To the credit of the Boston Globe, the headline to the article refers to an "alleged betrayal." But if the Board does not believe Ms. Grover, it should have closed the case by now. Two years is too long for the case to be in limbo. A false accusation is a serious injury to the clinician.

Finally, a professional board should conduct itself in a way that fosters trust in the profession. The story reported in the Boston Globe does the opposite.

(In addition to the Boston Globe article describing Ms. Grover's allegation, readers may be interested in an interview with Dr. Rabin in which he describes himself and his approach to therapy.)

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