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Preventing sexual attacks in healthcare facilities: Risk management considerations



Reports or allegations of sexual attacks in healthcare facilities are extremely upsetting and sometimes not given the attention they deserve. In June 2011, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a remarkable report on sexual attacks occurring in Veterans Affairs (VA) health facilities that not only raised awareness of the magnitude of the problem but that detailed numerous system weaknesses in VA facilities that might have enabled such attacks. This article discusses some of the GAO's findings as well as other instances of sexual attacks, such as occurred in the criminal prosecution of Paul Serdula, a former health professional who might have sexually assaulted hundreds of women. Some of Serdula's victims have subsequently sued in civil court, charging Serdula's employers with lack of supervision and raising the possibility of serial sexual attacks such as his evolving into large-scale patient safety disasters. This article will review certain ethical and legal considerations bearing on the liability of healthcare facilities in which sexual attacks are alleged to have occurred. Following a discussion of how two courts have used the legal construct of “foreseeability” in determining a healthcare facility's liability when an employee is charged with sexual assault, the article will conclude with a host of patient safety recommendations aimed at discouraging or deterring the occurrence of sexual attacks.