Misconduct claims against doctors raise concerns - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Misconduct claims against doctors raise concerns

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Posted: Sunday, July 11, 2010 12:00 pm | Updated: 4:29 pm, Wed Jul 14, 2010.

An unusual number of claims alleging sexual misconduct against patients by Valley doctors have emerged just within the last few months, according to an official with the state medical board.

Two of the three doctors facing allegations of sexual abuse and sexual assault offenses are from Mesa and have been charged with the crimes.

“It’s unusual for us to see that number of allegations at one time,” said Lisa Wynn, executive director of the Arizona Medical Board. “Our No. 1 priority is always protecting the public, and we investigate every allegation that would require action on our part. Every allegation is investigated on its own merit.

“Sometimes, allegations of sexual misconduct or sexual abuse are very hard to prove because an isolated person may not have witnesses, or police may not have enough evidence to make an arrest and move forward with a case. Keep in mind, there are 20,000 licensed doctors in Arizona, and the majority of them never have any contact with board.”

Dr. Gabriel Ogbonnaya, 43, of Healing Touch Internal Medicine, was charged earlier this month with eight counts of sexual abuse and sexual assault-related crimes, on allegations of sexually touching eight female patients during exams.

Ogbonnaya was arrested twice on such allegations dating back to 2007, according to Maricopa County Superior Court documents.

Ogbonnaya was scheduled to appear in Maricopa County Superior Court for a hearing on Friday.

In January, 2009, Dr. Richard Lewis, 53, a Mesa cardiologist, was charged with 61 counts of sexual abuse and sexual assault-related offenses in connection to allegations from 19 women who claimed that Lewis inappropriately touched them during medical procedures, with a number of the alleged incidents happening last summer, according to Maricopa County Superior Court documents.

Lewis is scheduled to appear in Maricopa County Superior Court for a hearing in August.

In order to avoid trials, the men would have to enter into plea agreements. Both have pleaded innocent to the charges against them.

The board also suspended the license of Dr. Jose Higuera of Phoenix in May on similar allegations of sexual abuse as an investigation is ongoing.

The medical licenses of the three doctors could be revoked if they are convicted of the crimes.

At the time Lewis was charged, then-Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said, “It’s a more challenging case when you have multiple victims, but it also can be very compelling when multiple victims describe the same crime being committed repeatedly by a defendant.”

Lewis would have to enter a plea to the most serious offense charge, sexual assault, to avoid facing a trial under policies adopted by Thomas.

Thomas said that “patients who seek treatment from medical professionals are especially vulnerable.”

Incidents of sexual abuse and such misconduct are traumatic for victims.

However, after five years their abusers can return to practice medicine if their license is reinstated by the board, Wynn said.

But getting a medical license reinstated is not automatic, Wynn added.

A database, the National Practitioners Databank overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, provides the status of the medical licenses of those required to have them.

It allows hospitals and other regulatory agencies such as state medical boards to review the status of one’s license to help prevent those banned from practicing medicine getting a job in another state, Wynn said.

However, sexual misconduct committed by doctors and licensed medical staff against patients are not the No. 1 reason that doctors lose their medical licenses, according to Wynn.

Doctors mostly lose their licenses for prescribing medicine without properly evaluating a patient or for being impaired by drugs or alcohol on the job, Wynn said.

The medical licenses of doctors who relapse from drug or alcohol abuse are automatically revoked.w

Anyone with concerns about their doctor or those experiencing incidents of inappropriate touching are urged to call their local police department or the Arizona Medical Board at (480) 551-2700.

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