Doctors clamp down on sexual abuse of patients

Many patients are unsure when a boundary has been crossed Keystone Archive

The Swiss Medical Association is due to discuss measures to crack down on doctors who sexually abuse their patients.

This content was published on February 3, 2004 - 13:50

It is believed that as many as 14,000 patients a year in Switzerland could suffer sexual assault by doctors, nurses and therapists.

The issue came under scrutiny after Werner Tschan, a Basel-based psychiatrist, published two studies on this form of abuse.

“Many people who suffer some sort of sexual abuse don’t know whether a boundary has been crossed or not,” Tschan said. “They need clarification from the medical profession and counselling.”

The Swiss Medical Association began a review of the problem in 2001 and is due to consider a number of safeguards in April, including a special hotline for patients.

Groups representing patients have welcomed the development.

“Patients really need somewhere they can get advice anonymously,” Pia Ernst of the Swiss Patients’ Organisation (SPO) told swissinfo.

Grey area

Tschan set up a counselling service for sexually-abused patients in canton Basel City three years ago – the only one of its kind in Switzerland. He believes that some cases of abuse arise because of a lack of clear guidelines for medical professionals.

“There are guidelines specifying that sexual contact with patients is not allowed but there’s no specific legislation in place,” Tschan told swissinfo. “We need changes in the legal system and in the criminal code, and the issue also needs to be integrated into medical training.”

Swiss patients’ organisations have also voiced concern that Swiss doctors convicted of sexual abuse are able to continue in their profession.

“There might be a ban or a fine, but these doctors are not always monitored afterwards and they don’t have to undergo therapy to deal with their problem,” said Tschan.

In January, it was reported that a doctor from Geneva who was imprisoned for six months for sexually abusing a teenage patient was able to resume his medical practice after serving his sentence.

Widespread abuse

The most widely quoted research on the subject, carried out in Canada, shows that around one per cent of patients are victims of abuse. Transposed to Switzerland, this amounts to 14,000 a year – a figure that is questioned by the SPO.

“The problem does exist but perhaps not in these huge numbers,” Ernst said. “One per cent of patients seems excessive.”

No nationwide study has been carried out in Switzerland into the extent of the problem.

The Canadian study showed that around two-thirds of doctors who abuse patients are male, while most of the victims are female. The worst offenders are psychiatrists and psychotherapists, it said.

swissinfo, Vanessa Mock

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