Malpractice Claims: Sexual Misconduct

By Dixie Wall
May 29, 2009

Malpractice Claims: Sexual Misconduct

By Dixie Wall
May 29, 2009

Sexual misconduct is not a new problem among health care practitioners. Hippocrates even added to his oath, "In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction, and especially from the pleasures of love with women or men, be they free or slaves." In order to prevent this damaging conduct from happening to our clients and in our practices, we must maintain appropriate boundaries and develop open communication. It is our responsibility as the therapist to establish these boundaries, and shift them to the needs of the client.

Malpractice and/or liability claims are generally categorized into malpractice, criminal or civil. Malpractice includes acts of commission and acts of omission.1,2 Acts of commission are unintentional or intentional acts, performed by a therapist, that result in some type of harm to the client. Acts of omission is more common among primary health care physicians such as doctors, chiropractors or acupuncturists and involves a failure to refer clients out when indicated, or some type of missed problem in initial treatment of patient. Criminal suits are usually claims that involve some type of illegal implication and ramification for unprofessional illegal conduct. This month, we will further discuss these criminal acts but more specifically unprofessional sexual misconduct.

According to the Medical Council of New Zealand, sexual misconduct can be divided into three categories. The lowest level of misconduct is defined as "sexual impropriety." "This is nonphysical contact of a patient that is inappropriate jokes, crude gestures ... or demeaning comments about a patient's undergarments." The next level is "sexual transgression," which is defined as, "inappropriate touching of a patient stopping just short of an overt sexual act." This can include unnecessary contact with the breasts and inappropriate draping or lack thereof. The last and most severe is "sexual violation." This is defined as, "a sexual act between patient and doctor, there is no distinction between which party initiated the contact and whether the act was consensual." When any type of sexual misconduct takes place, the issue is no longer in the malpractice realm but becomes a criminal issue. These illegal acts are usually excluded in malpractice insurance policies.

Health care professionals are held to higher standards due to the hands-on nature of our field. The one-on-one time spent with clients creates a special personal connection between the client and therapist where the client may share personal information that would not be shared to other types of professionals. With the exception of the health care professionals, people would generally never allow another service provider to touch them. This immediately places us in a unique position of trust as separate and distinctive professionals. Unfortunately, according to the American Massage Council's claims history, sexual misconduct is the number one type of claim against massage therapists.

Sexual misconduct is not limited to sexual interaction with a client. It can be an inappropriate comment, flirtatious behavior, look or gift. This type of misconduct can harm the client in many ways and has major repercussions for us as practitioners. These repercussions may include damaged reputations, lawsuits, and ultimately losing our permits, licenses and practices. How can these issues be prevented? Most experts in practice management recommend setting adequate and appropriate boundaries.

Setting Boundaries

Boundaries separate your personal space from the space of the client. Most boundaries are created by the client and maintained by the practitioner. The maintenance of these boundaries can help us maintain a thriving and professional practice. There are several types of boundaries set by in practice that can help us to prevent any misunderstandings or mistakes that could lead to sexual misconduct.

The first and most important when it comes to sexual impropriety claims are physical boundaries. What kind of touch will we accept from a client when greeting them? What type of draping techniques should we use? According to an administrator at a leading massage school in California, "draping is the number one complaint from clients receiving massage in their clinic." Massage therapists must make sure that the client is properly, consistently and conservatively draped. Always give the client sufficient time in private to change before and after the massage.

The next way to protect yourself is by maintaining verbal boundaries, keeping open all lines of communication with your client. Listen to your clients attentively and comfort them through a routine professional protocol in treatment procedures. When explaining your treatment plans for the client, make clear what you are going to do, explaining again what you are doing while doing it, and then telling the client what you just did. Set the language in conversation on the telephone in a professional level. Always avoid improper slang, language and gossip, and keep client's confidentiality a priority.

Lastly, a first impression is always made with visual boundaries. Our society is based on visual recognition and appearance. Create your own professionalism by consistently practicing routine procedures and retaining a standard dress code. Uniforms can create a comfortable atmosphere by setting a familiar tone. Keep your office clean and neat.

Through establishing, encouraging and enforcing these boundaries, you will promote your profession, as well as the safekeeping of yourself and your clients. Next time, we will discuss three additional boundaries that can help us succeed in practice.


  1. Wall D. Claims of commission. Massage Today, October 2008;8(10).
  2. Wall D. Acts of omission. Massage Today, September 2008;8(9).