Medical boards are designed to protect the public from bad doctors. But a bombshell report from the Texas Observer shows how medical boards across the country keep abusive doctors in practice, despite their questionable behavior. Journalists say these boards often use loopholes to keep these providers in power rather than revoking their medical licenses. In many cases, these providers are putting the health and safety of their patients at risk.
No Other Option
Gerald Nielson suffered from chronic back pain for many years. His primary care physician then referred him to Philip Leonard, a neurologist in Austin.
Nielson had already received risky pain medications, such as the opioid hydrocodone, the tranquilizer lorazepam, and the quasi-narcotic tramadol. He begged Leonard to prescribe him something that would do a better job of relieving his pain. Leonard started prescribing him hydrocodone as well as oxycodone, gradually upping his dosage every month.
While these pills can be highly addictive, Nielson said his back pain went away. He also noticed that Leonard only saw male patients, but he didn’t think anything of it at the time.
Nielson got hooked on the pills and continued going back to Leonard for years. However, Nielson says Leonard started fondling him during every visit. He says Leonard would bend him over the exam table and grind against him. Over the course of several appointments, Leonard would touch his anus and his penis, Nielson says. At first, he used gloves. Then he stopped using them.
The Texas Observer says this is just one example of providers abusing their patients without consequence. The report includes more than 40 medical providers that have been accused of coercing their patients for sex in exchange for addictive drugs in the past five years.
Records show the only reason Leonard was allowed to see Nielson was because he had previously been accused of inappropriately touching 17 of his former female patients. However, instead of revoking his license, the Texas Medical Board said Leonard could continue practicing medicine as long as he only saw male patients. But that didn’t stop him from abusing his patients.
Without access to opioids, many patients feel like they are starving. The pain becomes so unbearable that they often have no choice but to return to the doctor that was abusing them.
“I loved those pills so much,” Nielson said, “but I hated them at the same time.”
He told his friends and family about the abuse. He even considered reporting Leonard to the police, but he stopped when he realized he wouldn’t be able to get more pills.
He eventually reported the doctor’s crimes to the authorities. When the police started investigating, they found similar complaints had been made about Leonard in the past.
However, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Leonard. At the time, state law didn’t classify inappropriate touching as sexual assault, as it must include penetration. The law changed in 2019 to include inappropriate touching, but it remains a misdemeanor.
Dana Nelson, the prosecutor assigned to the case, declined to press charges. Her case notes reveal her logic at the time. “Only public lewdness? Refer to medical board,” she wrote.
Years of Patient Abuse
Cathryn Blue saw Leonard after hurting her back at work. She remembers his dirty lab coat and thinking that he probably hadn’t bathed in days. But she didn’t leave the office because she was afraid it may affect the status of her worker’s compensation claim.
During the exam, Blue says Leonard pulled her legs and rubbed his erect penis against her. He then ripped off her pants, Blue testified in court.
“I feel like I’ve just been raped without the sex,” Blue told her friend after the appointment. She then called the police and asked to speak to a female agent.
Several other women came forward around the same time to speak about their own abusive experiences with Leonard. Many of them also had worker’s comp claims. One woman says Leonard would press his erect penis against her, try massaging her breasts, and spank her.
As more allegations of abuse started piling up, Leonard denied all allegations against him.
Blue’s case is the only one to go to trial. During the case, defense attorneys for Leonard tried to discredit Blue. His attorney said the hard thing she felt rubbing against her back was nothing more than a cellphone.
Eventually, the medical board decided to solve the problem by keeping women away from Leonard.
When he was allowed to keep his license, Blue remembers thinking, “He’s going to sexually assault a child or a man.”
The Problem with Medical Boards
Rebecca Haw Allensworth, a Vanderbilt University law professor who studies medical boards, says this is an example of how medical boards “will do the very minimum to make sure this person doesn’t do that exact thing again.”
A 2020 analysis by the Austin American-Statesman shows that most of the 80 Texas doctors found to have engaged in sexual misconduct in the past five years have been allowed to keep their licenses.
Lee Anderson, the former president of the Texas Medical Board, said, “I am certain [Leonard’s] acquittal had something to do with softening the suspension” of his license. Anderson says boards are often hesitant to revoke someone’s license without a criminal conviction.
Leonard was shielded by Texas law regarding sexual assault. However, other states classify inappropriate touching between a doctor and patient as a felony.
“A number of advocates and survivors tried to increase penalties for repeat offenders or physicians in the recent legislative session to no avail,” says Katherine Strandberg, a former senior policy adviser with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, which pushed for an increase in the groping penalty.
Experts also say that many patients don’t report these kinds of encounters because their doctor has convinced them that these “treatments” are necessary.
“A lot of victims said that even though [Leonard] did this creepy stuff to them, they kept coming back because he actually helped them,” said Kim Farbo, the Austin detective assigned to Blue’s case.
“Sexual assault cases against doctors are further weakened by the fact that medicine involves inspecting the body and helping it function,” the Observer’s Olga Khazan writes. “A doctor’s appointment is one of the few times in adulthood when a stranger might see someone naked or touch their genitals.”
Allensworth adds that medical boards are often hesitant to take away a doctor’s license.
“They’re gonna make mistakes,” she says. And typically, “it’s gonna be a mistake in favor of the doctor. It’s hard to take your colleagues’ licenses away.”
In 2018, the Texas Medical Board finally revoked Leonard’s license. He tried to appeal the decision but was unsuccessful.