Patients can misread gestures, think misconduct

While some allegations of sexual misconduct are valid, many are the result of a misunderstanding, says Deborah S. Stephens, RN, BSN, JD, CPHRM, risk manager at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, MI. But that doesn't let the caregiver off the hook, she stresses. It's the health care professional's obligation to make sure that well-intended behavior is not misconstrued.

Stephens teaches staff at Spectrum to watch out for certain situations that increase the likelihood of a sexual misconduct allegation and to be extra careful then. There also are certain things that the caregiver should or shouldn't do to reduce the risk.

In teaching about how to reduce the risk, she offers this list of factors contributing to allegations of sexual misconduct:

  • lack of communication by the health care provider;
  • failure to adhere to personal space boundaries;
  • failure to ask permission to apply medical touch;
  • failure to have witnesses present during sensitive exams;
  • comforting or consoling gestures, such as hugging;
  • inappropriate sexual joking;
  • inability to perceive nonverbal cues from the patient;
  • language barriers;
  • a patient with a history of sexual abuse, which can leave him or her extra sensitive to touch and boundary violations.


For more information on preventing and addressing sexual misconduct, contact:

  • Deborah S. Stephens, Spectrum Health, 100 Michigan St. N.E., Grand Rapids, MI 49503. Telephone: (866) 989-7999.