Which factors fuel sexual violence in health care?


At the beginning of July, Brazilians across the country were appalled when they heard that an anesthesiologist was accused of sexually abusing a woman he had been treating during cesarean delivery. The incident was recorded on video by nurses and nurse technicians who, having become suspicious of the excessive amount of sedatives given to mothers-to-be by this particular anesthesiologist, decided to film him during a procedure. To do this, they made a last-minute change, switching delivery rooms to one in which they had hidden a cell phone in a cabinet.

What the footage showed was horrifying and the assailant, Giovanni Quintella Bezerra, was arrested on the spot. He’s a 32-year-old, White, successful physician, and he’s now accused of rape. The authorities are looking into whether there are more victims, others who may have been abused by the physician. The police are investigating about 40 surgeries in which Dr. Bezerra participated. That same month saw the arrest of another physician, gynecologist Ricardo Teles Martins, who was arrested after being accused of sexually harassing and abusing several women in Hidrolândia, in the northeastern state of Ceará.

In gathering information about these incidents, this news organization interviewed four Brazilian specialists to get their insights on the issues that have been brought to light by these recent cases and the factors that play a role in these kinds of criminal acts. Claudio Cohen, MD, PhD, is a psychiatrist, bioethicist, and professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. Daniela Pedroso, MA, is a psychologist who has 25 years’ experience working with victims of sexual violence. Gynecologist and obstetrician Jefferson Drezett, MD, PhD, is a professor in the field of population genetics and reproductive and sexual health at the Federal University of ABC, São Paulo, and in the department of health, life cycles, and society at the University of São Paulo School of Public Health. Maria Alice Scardoelli, MD, is a psychiatrist who also serves as vice-chair of the São Paulo Regional Council of Medicine (Cremesp).

Accusations and investigations

Not all incidents of sexual violence in health care institutions are reported, and precise numbers are difficult to obtain. The fact that there are any cases at all is troubling. In 2019, journalists from The Intercept found that over a period of 6 years (2014-2019), 1,734 such attacks were recorded in nine Brazilian states. They were able to get that information from the states’ Public Security Secretariats by using the Information Access Act, a law that regulates the right to access public information.

Efforts to determine how widespread this type of sexual violence is are further complicated by the difficulties in collating the accusations filed at each state’s regional council of medicine, police stations, and public prosecutor’s office. Which investigative steps are taken depends upon where the report was filed, and only occasionally do these entities communicate with each other. According to its data, Cremesp received 78 accusations in 2019. In 2020, that number increased to 84. In 2021, it was 83; these types of attacks were the seventh most common among the investigations opened that year. In the first 6 months of 2022, there were 36 complaints. The number includes investigations opened on the basis of press reports. In such cases, enough information must be available in the press reports make it possible to initiate an evaluation and assessment of the matter. There is no information about how many accusations became the subject of professional ethics proceedings and how many were formally adjudicated.

“Each accusation received is investigated by a technical committee made up of professionals from various specialties. There really needs to be a rigorous evaluation and assessment during the investigation. We cannot be unfair: It may turn out that there was no truth to the accusation after all, and yet someone’s career may already have been destroyed,” explained Dr. Scardoelli.

After the accusation is investigated and accepted by Cremesp, there is no deadline by which the proceedings must end. They can take up to 5 years, and sometimes longer. Since March, however, a deadline for the investigation period has been in effect, after which the proceedings can commence.

“We now have 90 days to make an evaluation and assessment in the investigation phase; that time period can be extended by 3 months, starting from the date the accusation is submitted to the council. If the case is accepted, then the proceedings are opened,” Dr. Scardoelli said.

Some incidents are not reported by victims. And there are incidents that are reported only after many years have passed. This was the case with Nina Marqueti, the actress at the center of #OndeDói — “Where It Hurts” — a campaign that was launched to raise awareness about sexual violence committed by health care professionals. When she was 16, her pediatrician sexually abused her. It wasn’t until 2019, more than a decade later, that she felt able to make this accusation known publicly.

Almost immediately, the campaign received over 4,000 posts online. Most of them were people’s accounts of acts of violence committed by physicians during appointments in their offices or during treatment in a hospital. These are available on Twitter under the hashtag #ondedoi.


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