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California

L.A. County to pay $1.3 million over doctor who molested patients

Patients wait in the full lobby of the Hudson Health center. Los Angeles County will pay $1.3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by a patient who said she was sexually harassed by a former doctor at the clinic.
(Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County supervisors agreed Tuesday to pay $1.3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by a patient who alleged she was groped and sexually harassed by a doctor at a county clinic.

They also took county health officials to task and called on them to put in place stricter protocols requiring that medical examinations be chaperoned and policies be developed to encourage nurses and staff to report doctors suspected of misconduct.

The doctor, Steve Leong, worked at the Claude Hudson Comprehensive Health Center in South L.A. He was arrested in 2013 and charged with sexually assaulting multiple female patients in an examination room at the clinic.

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Leong pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor counts of false imprisonment and four counts of sexual exploitation.

A patient whose name was not disclosed, along with her husband, sued the county, saying that during multiple medical appointments beginning in 2010, Leong had groped her and made inappropriate comments.

In the lawsuit complaint, the patient said she had complained to nursing staff and was told to request a different physician. She said she did request a new doctor, but was never given one.

She contended that the county was negligent in hiring Leong and keeping him on staff.

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Hal Yee, chief medical officer with the Department of Health Services, told the supervisors that the department already has an informal practice of providing chaperones when requested by patients or medical providers. But now, he said, the agency would put a formal policy in place requiring chaperones for all examinations.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl pointed out that during some of Leong’s examinations there was initially another staffer present but the doctor ordered the chaperone to leave. She said nurses at the clinic had known about Leong’s inappropriate behavior and called him “Dr. Pervert” among themselves.

Kuehl said nurses are often concerned that they could be “undermined and attacked” for reporting misconduct by doctors and that the department should do more to create a “safe environment for people to identify these particular doctors or practitioners very early on, so we can take appropriate steps.”

Yee said department officials are working to create a “culture where people understand they will not be punished for doing the right thing.”

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Arun Patel, director of quality, patient safety and risk management for the health services department, said management at the clinic learned of the allegations against Leong on Feb. 20, 2013, and the following day put in place a requirement that all male physicians have a chaperone when seeing female patients. Leong resigned from the county in June 2013.

After Leong was convicted on the criminal charges, the terms of his five-year probation prohibited him from treating female patients, but the terms were modified this year to allow him to treat female patients as long as a nurse or other staffer was present. He was also required to undergo treatment. The state medical board filed a petition to revoke his license Nov. 5, which is pending.

Dr. Mitch Katz, director of the Health Services department, said some county facilities already have a policy of always having a nurse or other staffer present while doctors are examining patients, but the agency will make it an across-the-board policy.

“I think it’s the right policy, and in my case, I’ve never done an examination without a chaperone,” he said.

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