A state health department task force has called for quicker resolution of sexual misconduct complaints against health care providers, but the complicated reforms are likely to take another year or longer, officials said Friday.
The Patient Safety Improvement Task Force, formed by the Washington State Department of Health last December, specifically recommends shortening the deadlines for handling such complaints, according to records DOH released Friday.
“Everyone is entitled to due process, and we’re committed to conducting investigations to arrive at the correct decision, but we can and must do better to complete those investigations in a timely manner and in a way that earns the confidence of all Washingtonians,” Secretary of Health Umair Shah said in a statement.
The next step is for a DOH-led work group to create reform timelines by next June, according to a department summary. By that point, the review would already have taken longer than the 332 days that DOH says it takes, on average, to resolve a sexual misconduct case.
Beyond next June, the work group will turn its focus to updating rules and considering what additional resources would be needed to resolve cases faster, including increased staffing to allow employees with sexual misconduct cases to have “smaller caseloads and prioritize those cases.”
DOH said some work is currently underway, with department officials regularly meeting to monitor sexual-misconduct cases that have lagged and creating a campaign to promote public awareness of where to file complaints and review health care provider discipline.
The task force was created in response to a Seattle Times investigation last year that revealed delays in disciplining providers for sexual misconduct. The Times reviewed 628 cases of sexual misconduct since 2009, finding 45% took longer than a year to discipline a provider, while 10% took more than two years. In 18 cases, patients alleged they were harmed by a provider who was already being investigated for sexual misconduct and who ultimately was disciplined.
The task force — drawn from DOH, the attorney general’s office as well as boards and commissions that oversee health care provider discipline — aimed for two goals: shortening the overall time it takes to process sexual misconduct cases and creating ways of informing the public about pending action against providers.
The final report sticks closely to draft recommendations, offering a range of ways to accelerate the resolution of cases: streamlining the process for hiring expert witnesses, limiting how long the settlement negotiations can last, creating dedicated investigative teams for sexual misconduct cases and digitizing paper records.
The task force also urges exploring a more muscular approach to disciplining health care providers that would include more frequent use of the state’s power to immediately stop a provider from practicing through a summary suspension. Another option, used in Oregon, could involve agreements with providers not to practice while under investigation.
The report cites significant support to expedite sexual misconduct cases from a variety of organizations with a stake in health care or sexual assault. The proposal to publicly disclose more information about investigations, however, has prompted significant pushback.
Those who favor more disclosure point out that a disciplinary case that has been authorized for an investigation has “already undergone enough scrutiny to warrant posting,” and could be removed if the findings don’t result in charges, the task force wrote. Opponents warn that “harm to a provider’s reputation and livelihood could be irreparable, even if the information is eventually removed.”