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2017 Knight Award for Public Service winner

Doctors & Sex Abuse

About the Project

In 2015 an AJC investigative reporter detected something alarming about the way Georgia treats doctors disciplined for sexual misconduct with patients: Two-thirds were permitted to practice again, often with just a slap on the wrist.

Our findings made us wonder whether Georgia is unusual. The result was a sweeping national investigation that combined high-tech research with old-school reporting to reveal a disturbing tolerance of sexual abuse by physicians in every state.

Documenting the scope of the problem nationally was extremely challenging because doctor discipline is recorded with no uniformity. Few states keep public datasets that identify cases by infraction type, as we learned through dozens of public-records requests.

Undeterred, AJC data journalists wrote web scrapers for regulatory websites in every state, collecting more than 100,000 disciplinary documents. Reading those documents to find the sexual misconduct cases would have taken years, so the data journalists developed a machine-learning program which narrowed the reading to 10,000 documents – still daunting, but possible.

Ultimately, the AJC’s investigation identified more than 3,100 doctors sanctioned after accusations of sexual misconduct since 1999, most whose violations involved patients. It was clear there were more unreported. We found sanitized orders, private reprimands and other measures that limit information available to the public, making it impossible to determine the full extent of the problem.

Doctor sex abuse is often kept secret and many victims assumed the issue was rare and they might be at fault. We chose not to paywall this project because increased awareness of the pervasiveness of doctor sexual abuse was a key goal, to protect future patients and to encourage reporting of the issue. We built a custom website for maximum impact and to serve as a complete resource. This also gave us freedom to tailor the design and layouts to our content, so we could use the powerful illustrations of real events, video interviews and case documents as part of our storytelling in a way not possible through our CMS.

Creating a guide for state regulators looking to improve their state’s patient safety climate was critical to our public service mission because, as we learned, states didn’t know the extent of doctor sex abuse or the best practices to prevent it. We researched laws from every state and devised a grading system to show performance in key patient protection areas. Interactive data visualizations give a big picture, and detailed state pages give breakdowns and state-specific resources.

As a result of our investigation, scores of victims from more than two dozen states reached out to us. Several states improved public accessibility to doctor sex abuse findings and others are considering stronger patient protections. Georgia’s medical board is re-examining its handling of sexual misconduct. Regulators in Washington reviewed their procedures for notifying law enforcement and alerted prosecutors to an abusive doctor. A leading medical ethicist has called for a zero-tolerance rule for physicians, and a private citizen collected 19,000 supporters on a petition to revoke licenses of doctors convicted of sex crimes.