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Inappropriate Patient Sexual Behavior When Working in Sensitive Areas of the Body

Results From a National Physical Therapy Survey

Boissonnault, Jill S. PT, PhD, WCS1; Cambier, Ziádee PT, MSPT, DPT2; Hetzel, Scott J. MS3

Journal of Women’s Health Physical Therapy: January/March 2019 - Volume 43 - Issue 1 - p 36–43
doi: 10.1097/JWH.0000000000000118
Research Reports

Background: Career and 12-month prevalence for inappropriate patient sexual behavior (IPSB) among physical therapy practitioners is 84% and 47%, respectively. Risk factors include fewer years of patient care, treating patients with cognitive impairment, female-practitioner sex, and male-patient sex. The IPSB risk specific to PT pelvic health practitioners and those treating in sensitive body areas has not been investigated.

Objectives: Determine prevalence and risk of IPSB in physical therapy practitioners performing internal examinations and working in sensitive body areas, and whether differences exist in IPSB response-strategies among these practitioners versus general PT respondents.

Study Design: Mixed-methods survey research.

Methods: A survey fielded through sections of the American Physical Therapy Association and selected PT and physical therapist assistant educational programs in 2016 collected responses to questions on internal examinations and on working in sensitive body areas. Comparisons were made to the general survey respondents.

Results: Most IPSB events were unrelated to working in sensitive body areas for general respondents, but occurred significantly more often for pelvic health practitioners (13.8% vs 3.8%; P = .036). Performing internal examinations was not a significant risk factor for IPSB. The pelvic health physical therapists were mostly experienced female practitioners, treating mostly women. They terminated and transferred care to others more often in the face of IPSB.

Conclusion: Pelvic health physical therapy practitioners incurred more IPSB when treating sensitive body areas and transferred and terminated care more often than general respondents. Future research may determine whether internal examination is a stand-alone risk factor.

1School of Health Professions, Division of Physical Therapy, Shenandoah University, Leesburg, Virginia; School of Medicine and Public Health, and Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation, Physical Therapy Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

2Swedish Medical Center, Seattle, Washington.

3School of Medicine and Public Health, Department of Biostatistics and Medical Informatics, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Statement of the sources of grant support: This work was supported, in part, by a research grant from the Section on Women's Health, APTA.

Statement of Institutional Review Board approval of the study protocol:

Minimal Risk IRB (Health Sciences) 9/8/2014 Submission ID number: 2014-1002.

The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Copyright © 2019 by the Section on Women's Health, American Physical Therapy Association.
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