A consultant faces an investigation following an allegation of sexual assault during a routine clinical examination. Dr Lucy Hanington, Medicolegal Consultant at Medical Protection, reports.
Dr S, an NHS consultant in emergency medicine, contacted the Medical Protection out-of-hours advice line. He had been summoned to a meeting with his medical director and head of HR towards the end of his shift and informed of his immediate exclusion from work. He was told that a complaint had been made by a female patient he had seen the day before, and that the matter had been referred to the police. The patient was said to be in her 20s and to have presented with abdominal pain. No further information about the nature of the complaint was forthcoming. Dr S was understandably very distressed.
How Medical Protection assisted
A medicolegal consultant (MLC) discussed the events of the day before with Dr S. He recalled seeing a patient fitting the description and that she had left the department abruptly soon after he had reviewed her. Dr S was advised that he should get in contact with Medical Protection again without delay if contacted by the police, and before making any comment. Permission was sought to instruct a legal adviser on his behalf, and an urgent case file was opened so that ongoing support could be provided. Additional sources of personal support were discussed.
The following day a legal adviser and the MLC arranged a meeting with Dr S. A draft statement, based on his interaction with the patient identified as the potential complainant, was prepared. Dr S mentioned that a medical student had been shadowing him that day, and had seen a number of patients with him, although he was unable to recall which. The lawyer and MLC talked Dr S through the police interview process and discussed the wider potential implications of the complaint.
Five days later Dr S was invited to a police interview under caution. He attended with the Medical Protection legal adviser, who had liaised with the police to confirm the identity of the patient. She had alleged that Dr S had inappropriately touched her underwear while examining her. Dr S explained to the police the clinical examination he had conducted that day and talked through his standard procedure when examining a patient’s abdomen. He mentioned that his examination may have been observed by a medical student she was subsequently interviewed along with other members of staff. Ultimately, the police case was closed with no further action.
The GMC opens an investigation
Unfortunately, doctors often face a situation of ‘multiple jeopardy’, with a single incident leading to investigations by multiple bodies. Although Dr S was allowed to return to work soon after the conclusion of police case, the police had informed the GMC who in turn opened their own investigation. Medical Protection assisted Dr S with this also, with the MLC providing advice on reflection and remediation, including emphasising the importance of clear communication and the value of considering a chaperone, even for more routine examinations. The complainant refused to engage with the GMC process, which was subsequently closed with no further action.
Allegations of sexual assault against doctors are rare but may occur from poor communication and/or misunderstanding on the part of a patient. While the presence of a chaperone can be helpful for both doctor and patient, it does not mean a complaint will not be made. Medical Protection provides expert support and advice to doctors facing criminal investigation resulting from a clinical interaction with a patient.
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