Watchdog supports chaperones as sexual complaints against doctors rise

2013-02-01 16:12

The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) has advised doctors to consider having chaperones sit in when they perform intimate examinations on their patients.

This comes as an increasing number of doctors are sexually harassing and assaulting their patients or having affairs with them, according to cases reported to the health practitioners’ watchdog.

The HPCSA said the chaperones would offer protection to doctors and patients.

Bertha Peters-Scheepers, HPCSA spokesperson, said although there was no policy relating to chaperones, “the Council fully supports the call for a chaperone to be present, patient permitting, during an intimate examination”.

What this would mean is that a third person would be present in the room when the doctor inspects a patient’s breast, genitalia or rectum.

Professor Ames Dhai, director of the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics at Wits University, also supports the idea.

“It is important for doctors to consider the use of chaperones during intimate examinations as allegations of sexual assault against practitioners are on the increase and about a third of those accused are found guilty,” she said.

Last year alone, between April and September, more than 10 complaints of sexual misconduct were reported to the HPCSA and these excludes those relating to doctors having affairs with their patients.

In the 2006/7 financial year there were two cases of sexual assault brought before the HPCSA, the following year it was five and in 2009/2010 it increased to 28 complaints.

Of the total, 12 cases were finalised at the preliminary discip­linary inquiry stage and 23 were escalated to a formal inquiry where 13 practitioners were found guilty.

Peters-Scheepers said the HPCSA was concerned about the increasing number of sexual misconduct cases against doctors.

“The Council investigated numerous cases over the last five years and most complaints were lodged against medical practitioners and psychologists,” she said.

Among the cases is that of a doctor struck off the roll for sexually assaulting his patient.

Dr Charles Odidi was found guilty of sexually and indecently assaulting a female patient in a consulting room at Kagiso’s Leratong Hospital in 2009.

Peters-Scheepers said it was for this reason “the HPCSA was supporting the call for a chaperone to be present during an intimate examination”.

But she cautioned that communication between doctors and patients was paramount.

“Practitioners must explain why and how a procedure will be carried out, keeping in mind the patient’s cultural, social and religious boundaries,” Peters-Scheepers explained.

Dhai shared similar sentiments.

“Communication during the consultation is vital. The doctor must explain to the patient why he wants to perform an intimate examination and also offer to have a chaperone in order to avoid any confusion that may lead to allegations of sexual misconduct later,” she said.

A study published in the South African Medical Journal this month found that 72% of the gynaecologists and general practitioners were in favour of using chaperones, but only 27% of them always utilised this service.

Findings suggested that low usage of chaperones could be attributed to the lack of clear guidelines from the HPCSA.

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