A Department of Veterans Affairs gynecologist in Biloxi, Mississippi, made graphic and lewd comments to patients while conducting pelvic examinations, joked about sex with them and otherwise traumatized veterans under his care, yet he remained on staff for years after an administrator became aware of complaints, a VA investigation has found.
In a 33-page report released Wednesday by the VA's Office of Inspector General, the department's top watchdog said a staff gynecologist at the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System was disrespectful, rude and offensive to at least five veteran patients, all of whom said their experiences with the physician left them feeling violated.
"Specifically, comments made by the subject gynecologist included making graphic, lewd comments about sexual positions and penetration, telling a patient that when prescribing Valium to women they do not care if they receive 1 or 27 Pap smears, making offensive jokes while performing a pelvic examination, attributing a health condition to an untreated history of a sexually transmitted disease without evidence or conducting an examination, and telling a patient not to trust other VA providers," the report found.
One patient questioned whether her health concerns were her fault. Another, who said she had been sexually assaulted while serving, told investigators that the exam triggered memories of her past trauma. A third patient said she has not been the same since an appointment with the physician.
“I wish there was more support … there is always a thing where no one believes women … when we say something is wrong … we don’t have the power,” one patient is quoted as saying in the investigation. The patient added, “I don’t even work at the VA and I’m still scared … it feels like it’s wrong to say something when a guy does something … Does it have to be so egregious, the discomfort should be validated?”
John Daigh, the VA's assistant inspector general for health care, said these events had a long-term impact on patients.
"The OIG determined that these provider-patient interactions resulted in patients reporting negative outcomes such as anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and feelings of re-traumatization or powerlessness," Daigh wrote.
Making matters worse, a nurse chaperone stood silently by during the misconduct, and facility leaders were aware of the problems as early as 2015 but failed to address or investigate them, according to the report.
Investigators said that when they interviewed the nurse chaperone, she attributed the gynecologist's manner to being "just his personality" and said patients should find a different doctor if they didn't like it.
She added that she and the physician were from up North and their direct communication style "rubbed the wrong way with some of the Southern women down here," according to the report.
It adds that the hospital's chief of surgery was aware of the complaints as early as 2015, but a review was not launched until September 2019, shortly after a facility director learned of a complaint and asked the chief of staff to look into it immediately.
The gynecologist retired from the VA in November 2019. Hospital administrators did not report him to the state licensing board or the National Practitioner Data Bank, an oversight the chief of surgery said was "a mistake on my part as a manager."
The shocking report comes as the VA is stepping up efforts to improve health care for female veterans, creating stand-alone centers for their care or carving out sections of existing facilities with separate entrances to make women feel more comfortable getting care at the VA.
While many veterans say they get great care at VA hospitals, many also say they feel uncomfortable in VA settings where they have experienced sexual harassment or assault, in some cases.
They also say their status as veterans is often questioned by patients and staff, placing them in the uncomfortable position of having to prove their military service.
Issues of mistreatment and the VA's handling of sexual assault at its medical campuses were spotlighted last December when the VA OIG found that then-VA Secretary Robert Wilkie disparaged a female veteran who alleged she had been sexually assaulted at the Washington, D.C., VA.
In December, Congress passed legislation that contained portions of the Deborah Sampson Act, a bill that created a new Office of Women's Health within the department. It also requires improved training to accommodate female veterans' medical needs and expands coverage for counseling and treatment of sexual harassment and assault.
Daigh said the VA must review its policies related to requirements and training of providers who conduct sensitive exams, as well as those tasked with serving as chaperones.
He also recommended that the regional office responsible for the Biloxi hospital review its process for tracking patient complaints.
VA officials said they agreed with the recommendations and would implement changes this year.