UCLA Gynecologist’s Alleged Sexual Assault of Patient Is Indicative Of A Bigger Problem

Supermajority Education Fund

December 26, 2019

In 2017, the same year the #MeToo movement went viral, a panel of three physicians and a third-party evaluator looked into allegations that The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Health gynecologist Dr. James Heaps sexually assaulted and harassed a patient that year according to the Los Angeles Times. Dr. Heaps, who retired from UCLA in 2018, allegedly grabbed the patient’s breasts and buttocks, according to the Times, among other inappropriate acts.

On Nov. 17, UCLA released the investigative review: The panel unanimously decided that there is sufficient evidence that Dr. Heaps violated the University of California policy on sexual violence and sexual harassment. 

UCLA released the review to Supermajority News, which was partly redacted for privacy reasons. According to the panel, “[the accusert’s] statement alone that she felt she could not say anything because she was in pain, scared, and dependent upon him to remove the source of her pain strongly suggests lack of consent.” The report explained that some of Dr. Heaps’ behavior during the exam that he claimed was appropriate did not fit with American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidance. 

A witness also said Dr. Heaps talked with patients about dating, telling one patient, “If I was younger, I would be swiping.” According to the review, Dr. Heaps acknowledged that he spoke to patients about dating “100% of the time” and said “patients come to see him just to ask about dating.”

UCLA told the Los Angeles Times that the investigation took two years to complete because it has never had to conduct a Title IX investigation for a patient and physician in a clinical setting. In a statement to Supermajority News, UCLA Health said an independent review committee plans to issue a public report in 2020 from a review that began in March to assess whether UCLA policies and procedures preventing, identifying, and addressing sexual misconduct are “consistent with best practices.”

AbuDagga, who has researched sexual assault and harassment by physicians to patients, said the power imbalance of the physician and patient relationship creates unique circumstances for sexual assault survivors to feel uncomfortable reporting their assault.

“There are different reactions to trauma — fight or flight– but actually in most cases, patients would freeze and doubt themselves and that’s sort of what makes this difficult,” she said. “Many patients do not know how an intimate physical exam should be done.” 

A study authored by AbuDagga and published in 2016 looked at 253 doctors reported for sexual misconduct or who paid a settlement in response to sexual misconduct. The study found that out of those 253 physicians, 177 were not disciplined by their state medical boards. AbuDagga added that many patients do not know they can report to these boards in the first place. 

“There are not enough structures and systems in place to protect patients,” she said. “There is strong evidence that this problem is pervasive. There should be guidelines and clear penalties and each case should be investigated.”