Doctors accused of sexually abusing patients often escape criminal charges

I-TEAM learns incidents are difficult to prove

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As sickening as it is, a local lawyer says sexual abuse at the hands of doctors is an under-reported crime that is happening in medical facilities across Florida. The I-TEAM found that the incidents of inappropriate sexual touching are occurring during routine doctor visits and exams, during hospital stays and even while the patient is under anesthesia.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shed light on this problem on a national scale in an award-winning investigation last year. The I-TEAM turned its focus to Jacksonville and surrounding areas. We learned that several accused medical professionals were punished by having their medical licenses revoked, but somehow escaped criminal charges. 

The allegations themselves are enough to turn your stomach, including doctors rubbing patients' breasts and private areas during routine exams, women being asked to unbutton their clothes but never given a gown -- and physicians becoming aroused.

It's not only women being assaulted. Wayne A. Collins, a Lake City nurse, was arrested, accused of touching two men during their examinations. He was ultimately found guilty.

But, in another case, a patient accused a Jacksonville doctor, Dr. Robert Dehgan, of lifting up her shirt and attempting to kiss her, according to Department of Health documents. Dehgan was then accused of similar behavior in 2014 and 2015, but he was never criminally charged, according to public records.

Instead, Florida's Board of Medicine suspended Dehgan's license for three years and ordered him to pay a $30,000 fine. Deghan is also permanently restricted from examining females, but he will be able to practice medicine once again.

The I-TEAM spoke to Dehgan, and he tells us the claims brought against him are bogus and he's been in practice for 45 years. He said that at the present time, while his license is suspended, he's trying to solve the problem with the Department of Health. Dehgan claims the three women who have accused him are in collusion with one another. 

We wanted two different perspectives on why criminal charges often don't stick in cases like these. We spoke with attorneys Mitch Stone and Mark Avera. Stone has defended doctors and Avera has represented victims.

Avera said in cases like this, it's hard to meet the state's burden of proof for a sexual crime.  

"It's certainly more prevalent than we know. It's certainly underreported," Avera told the I-TEAM.

"I've represented doctors accused of all kinds of different crimes," said Stone.

Both attorneys agreed that meeting the state attorney's burden of proof to prove a doctor's guilt is extremely difficult.

"When it's strictly one person saying, 'This is what happened to me,' and the other person saying, 'I did not do this,' our constitution give everyone in this country the presumption of innocence and gives everyone in this country the requirement for the state or the federal government to prove their accusations against that person beyond into the exclusion of every reasonable doubt," explained Stone.

"So, a state attorney looking at the law enforcement investigation for a health care provider, be it a nurse or a physician who's had no complaints in the past about this kind of conduct, sees it on his or her desk and is looking for corroborating evidence. Is there video? Are there witnesses to corroborate what the patient is complaining of?" said Avera.

Our investigation reveals that inappropriate touching or sexual battery often occurs while a patient is already disrobed for an exam. And, many times the patient may or may not know if what happened was against the law or what to do about it. The sexual abuse is also typically done in an inconspicuous way.

"You are typically not going to see the degree of violence, not to suggest that the crime is any less disgusting as in a violent rape, but it's conduct that is more subtle," Avera explained.

Out of the eight local medical professionals accused of inappropriate touching or sexual battery since 1998, only one was also convicted of a sex crime.

And, six out of the eight alleged incidents occurred in an exam room, where only the doctor and the patient were present.  

"One of the main problems a prosecutor would face is from an evidentiary standpoint, is whether or not the inappropriate touching was part of the medical exam, or in actuality, what would be consistent with a sexual assault," Stone said.

While investigating this story, the I-TEAM also uncovered a local hospital -- which we are not ready to name -- is attempting to settle a sexual assault claim out of court, not involving the police.

Lawyers say if you are touched inappropriately, it is critical to report it to both the medical facility and police because the facility may try to handle the incident internally, possibly to protect the medical facility's interests. 

Here's what you can do to protect yourself and your family members: 

  • Request another medical professional or nurse to be in the room for any personal examination you have.
  • Review your doctor's complaints on the Florida medical Board website. 
  • Understand the physician's boundaries, for instance if you're visiting an ear, nose and throat doctor, an examination of a private area on your body may not be necessary.
  • You can check for any discipline records of any Florida doctor on the Department of Health website.

    About the Authors:

    Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.