ILLUSTRATIONS BY RICHARD WATKINS / AJC

Under arrest, yet seeing patients

Doctors facing sex charges keep practicing when medical regulators delay action

Robert B. Rook's booking photo, from the Conway Police Department in Arkansas. Rook is free on bond after his arrest in June.

In Arkansas, family doctor Robert B. Rook is facing counts of rape and sexual assault of patients. While the criminal case is pending, the medical board earlier this month reinstated his suspended license.

After police charged Virginia doctor Dean H. Woodard with forcing a patient to have sex, three weeks later the medical board allowed him to practice with a female chaperone.

Florida said there was no pressing emergency by the time the medical regulators found out in 2010 that Dr. Tulsibhai L. Pipalia had been accused of exposing himself to a patient. So he continued to practice as the case wound its way through the justice system.

Police can be so convinced that a doctor committed sex crimes that they charge and book him, ready for prosecutors to take him to trial.

But that might not be enough to sway state medical regulators, tasked with protecting the public, to prevent a doctor from seeing more patients while criminal charges are pending, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered in a review of disciplinary cases involving sexual misconduct.

In testament to the benefit of the doubt that medical boards extend to doctors, in a number of states medical regulators have delayed taking action until criminal charges are resolved — even if it takes years.

Medical panels might require an accused doctor to have chaperones with female patients — something already considered good practice — but little if anything is done to alert the doctor’s roster of patients that he faces sex charges.

“I can’t imagine patients being comfortable if they knew that the doctor who was examining them had been accused of rape or some type of sexual assault,” Karen Baker, director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said. “I can understand that a medical board would want to be cautious, but it seems to me like maybe they could temporarily suspend the license, pending results.”

Some do. But medical boards say they have to follow due process and that an accusation alone isn’t enough to put a doctor out of business. Some must conduct their own investigations, with their own hearings where doctors can cross-examine witnesses.

In Virginia, “the board’s authority to take action against a licensee does not rest upon criminal charges, but rather upon convictions,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Health Professions said in an email, declining to comment specifically on the Woodard case. He eventually pleaded to misdemeanor sexual battery and received 12 months’ probation.

Woodard said he had no comment.

Florida said it would have had to show that Pipalia’s behavior was likely to continue in the absence of an emergency order. In 2011, the court placed him on pre-trial intervention and the misdemeanor criminal charge was dismissed because he complied. Finally, in 2014, medical regulators permanently prohibited him from treating female patients.

He didn’t respond to a message left at his office.

In Arkansas, Rook is free on bond after his arrest in June.

Medical board attorney Kevin O’Dwyer said Rook was entitled to a hearing after the panel had suspended his license. No witnesses appeared to testify against him.

Special prosecutor Jason Barrett said he offered the victims’ statements from arrest affidavits but did not want the women to testify before a criminal trial. He said law enforcement investigators would testify.

O’Dwyer, though, said that would have been worthless because Rook’s attorneys wouldn’t be able to cross-examine the doctor’s accusers. It reinstated him with the requirement he use a chaperone. The idea of warning his other patients was never discussed, O’Dwyer said.

Rook did not return a call seeking comment from the AJC.

“I think a guy is practicing medicine again who has no business practicing medicine,” Barrett said.

Ryon Horne/AJC

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