UCLA handling of sexual misconduct allegations against physicians ‘inadequate,’ report finds
UCLA’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct against five physicians employed by the university over three decades was “at times either delayed or inadequate or both,” an independent committee investigating the allegations said in a report released Friday.
The allegations included conduct ranging from sexually suggestive questions and commentary to inappropriate touching and invasive genital, anal and breast exams. They involved five physicians who worked at UCLA Health and the Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center.
Among them is James M. Heaps, whose arrest a year ago for sexual battery and exploitation in connection with two patients touched off intense public scrutiny about how UCLA handled earlier complaints against him. Heaps has strongly denied all allegations of wrongdoing.
The committee found that “a number of organizational, cultural and informational deficiencies played a role” in UCLA’s failure to act adequately at the time of the incidents and complaints.
“In short,” the report said, “some of the conduct the committee examined may have been prevented.”
The report publicly disclosed for the first time that the commission investigated allegations against four other doctors: Mark L. Weissman, Steven J. Weinstein, Edward Wiesmeier and Dennis A. Kelly.
The report said that none of the five doctors — all of whom have retired or left UCLA, in some cases because of the allegations — agreed to meet with the special committee, led by former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno.
The committee reviewed patient and employee complaints for the specific purpose of assessing UCLA Health and Student Health’s responses. It did not assess whether the complaints violated policy or law. The university’s Title IX office, which oversees investigations alleging sexual harassment or violence against members of the UCLA community, is conducting its own review of the complaints.
“The incidents described in this report are deeply upsetting and reflect alleged conduct that is completely antithetical to our values,” Chancellor Gene Block wrote in a message to the campus posted Friday afternoon. “Deriving lessons from these incidents, the report recommends further steps to prevent, detect and respond to allegations of sexual misconduct by a clinician.”
The committee was convened in March 2019, at Block’s direction, after the UC regents received a notice of an intent to sue from a former patient of Heaps, an obstetrician-gynecologist who was affiliated with UCLA from 1983 to 2018 in a variety of roles, including as a faculty member at the medical school and consulting physician at Student Health.
Heaps retired in June 2018; UCLA did not disclose that he had been the subject of complaints and investigations until a year later, when he was charged with sexual battery and exploitation of two patients.
The committee reported among its findings that UCLA Health’s leadership asked Heaps to begin a planned vacation ahead of schedule in 2017 after receiving a patient complaint about him that was escalated to UCLA’s Title IX office and the UCLA police department.
UCLA Health administrators tasked with handling the complaint determined that, while the Title IX investigation proceeded, it was not necessary to suspend Heaps in order to protect patients, the report said. The Title IX office later found the patient’s report to be credible and that Heaps had violated the university’s sexual violence and sexual harassment policy, and Heaps was placed on investigatory leave and then retired.
In 2019, UCLA received a complaint from a patient who alleged she was sexually assaulted by Heaps during a visit in 2018, after Heaps returned from vacation and while the Title IX office was conducting its investigation into him, the report found.
Heaps’ criminal case is pending.
“It is unfortunate that UCLA has released a report that contains allegations but a paucity of proof,” said his attorney Leonard Levine. Heaps “remains confident that when all of the evidence is presented, he will be totally exonerated of any and all criminal charges.”
Levine said hundreds of former patients and fellow workers, including nurses who were present during the alleged misconduct, support Heaps “and are adamant that the allegations are untrue.”
An attorney for Heaps’ accusers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The report also outlined complaints about the four other doctors, concluding that UCLA did not undertake its due diligence in vetting some of them before hiring them.
Beginning as early as 2009, employees at Toluca Lake Health Center began diverting female patients away from Weissman and signaling to him during exams with a light when he appeared to cross boundaries, but complaints about him were not disclosed or uncovered during UCLA’s 2014 acquisition of the clinic, the report said. UCLA later placed Weissman on investigatory leave and notified law enforcement and the Medical Board about him. The university’s Title IX office is investigating patient complaints relating to him.
Similarly, Weinstein, a surgeon at UCLA’s Northridge clinic from 2015 to 2017, was the subject of a patient complaint that involved law enforcement when he worked at a Woodland Hills medical center, but UCLA did not learn about the complaint when it later hired Weinstein, the report said. Weinstein was placed on investigatory leave and reported to the Medical Board; he has since challenged UCLA’s response to a patient complaint.
Wiesmeier, an OB-GYN, and Kelly, a specialist in men’s health, both worked at Student Health but retired more than a decade ago, the report said. Several current and former employees who worked with Wiesmeier said they saw him ignore patients’ requests not to perform sensitive exams, become sexually aroused during exams and uneccessarily and repeatedly touch patients’ vagina and clitoris, the report stated.
Employees said they saw Kelly examine male patients “on all fours” without privacy draping, perform unnecessary rectal exams, lock the exam room door and remain present while patients undressed, the report said.
The committee consulted three expert physicians in these practice areas with decades of experience who said that such conduct “generally would be considered inappropriate and below the standard of care.”
UCLA’s Title IX office is following its investigations process for complaints related to the two Student Health doctors, the report said.
Among the deficiencies the committee outlined at UCLA:
- The absence of clear and consistent standards, as well as clear authority, for immediately suspending physicians accused of sexual misconduct;
- The lack of clear and consistent processes for reviewing and responding to complaints of sexual misconduct;
- A cultural deference to physicians that impeded reporting about them;
- Inadequate education of patients and chaperones about sensitive exams.
The committee said such conduct could be avoided in the future by implementing the following recommendations:
- Clarify procedures and authority to suspend a physician while investigating allegations of sexual misconduct;
- Develop a standard response to such allegations in the clinical context;
- Enhance standardization and training about clinical boundaries and expectations during sensitive exams;
- Reduce barriers to reporting physician misconduct;
- Put more emphasis on patient advocacy.
The committee recommended the appointment of a compliance monitor to oversee implementation of these changes.
In his message to the campus, Block said UCLA had already taken several measures to improve patient safety before the committee convened, including changing staff reporting structures to facilitate the reporting of misconduct, updating chaperone policies, training staff, providing more feedback mechanisms for patients and creating a dedicated UCLA Health Title IX investigator.
“Amidst these changes and recommendations, we make this commitment to you: We will not tolerate sexual violence or harassment in any form. Allegations of sexual misconduct by any healthcare provider will be promptly investigated, and appropriate actions will be taken to ensure our patients are safe, protected and respected,” Block said.
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