What physicians can learn from the Penn State scandal

The investigations about the Penn State sex abuse scandal are still unfolding. Revealing the truth is up to justicia now. Meanwhile we can learn an important lesson about professionalism.

It seems to me as if a few very powerful people put the Penn State brand above children and covered up the raping of young boys within the Penn State facilities. I assume that several people at the top of the Penn State hierarchy must have been involved in the cover-up or watering down of what happened. Fact is, Joe Paterno was recently dismissed from his position and school president Graham Spanier was forced to resign.

Sadly, we will probably never know of all the victims and how grimly their lives were affected. I strongly suspect that protocols and the general order of conduct at Penn State are going to play a crucial role court. In other words, the judges are going to try to figure out, “who knew what?” McQueary, the former Graduate Assistant who reported the 2002 incident, has been criticized for not intervening to protect the boy from Sandusky, as well as for not reporting the incident to police himself.

For physicians, this case shows that it is important to document any suspicious or even semi-suspicious happenings that could have legal consequences in the future. These legal issues are not necessarily about child abuse; when you suspect abuse, you are mandated to report it to the police as a physician. What comes to my mind are phone calls or inquiries by patients or really anyone that could potentially file a malpractice lawsuit. “Such and such said this and that” does not have as much credibility in court as a log of phone calls or phone conversations that raised a flag. Recollection from memory could prove not powerful enough to get one out of the jam. On the contrary, logs are permissible and could contain the following:

  • Date
  • Length
  • Person spoken to
  • Content 1-2 sentences

Practicing ethically, consulting colleagues or superiors and fostering integrity is probably the best protection from any legal trouble. In addition, a log about questionable conversations and events could end up being invaluable and strengthen your credibility both legally and professionally in a worst-case scenario.

Naomi Wiens is a medical student who blogs at Get Into Medical School.

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