3 On Your Side Investigates: Doctors of Deception

Updated: Feb. 20, 2019 at 9:59 PM CST
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JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - Right now, dozens of physicians all over Mississippi continue to see their patients despite dealing with serious issues that could put your safety at risk.

A 3 On Your Side joint investigation with Mississippi Today found some of these doctors are in a recovery program for substance abuse or mental issues.

A few still practice despite allegations of professional sexual misconduct, even though the public isn’t always told about it.

“He made me undress from the top to the bottom and I didn’t understand, why would I have to undress from top to bottom and get a breast exam and everything if something was going on down below," said Danielle, who told us she was one of Dr. Gregory Norwood’s patients.

Her name has been changed in this story to protect her identity.

Over several months, Danielle said the Southaven gynecologist assaulted her through wellness exams that he insisted she have -- three -- with no chaperone present.

“He didn’t care about my health. All he cared about was undressing me,” Danielle said.

Danielle isn’t alone in her concerns about Dr. Norwood.

Between 2016 and 2018, investigators with the medical board looked into claims from seven other patients, and while the events themselves vary – from one patient saying Dr. Norwood wanted them to have an orgasm while in the exam room to instances where he asked to place his mouth on certain areas -- those investigators concluded that all of them described some form of sexual misconduct, according to an affidavit filed with the board last year.

While Danielle hasn’t filed anything in court against Dr. Norwood at this point, she did tell us he took photos of her on the exam table -- with his phone and hers -- photos she has now turned over to her attorney.

Dr. Norwood's attorney, Tony Farese, said he denies these allegations.

“He has not been charged with any crimes. He certainly denies any wrongdoing, and we believe these people are trying to facilitate civil claims against him and his insurance carrier. That’s the bottom line,” Farese said.

The board’s most recent action, agreed upon by Dr. Norwood, suspended his license indefinitely as a result of the board’s investigation.

Danielle said she’s now preparing to file legal action against the OBGYN.

She also told us he took photos of her during her exam -- on her phone and his -- and turned those over to her attorney.

“What does he need these phones for? He’s the doctor, maybe he’s going to show me what’s going on or something," Danielle said.

Danielle then recalled something Dr. Norwood did during her pelvic exam which caused excruciating pain.

“[It was] the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life, and instead of him saying, “I’m sorry,” he just bust out and start laughing like it was pleasure to him. And that just hurt me so bad and you’re sitting here laughing like it was pleasure to you,” Danielle said.

In the two years it took the state medical board to suspend his license, that amended affidavit listed seven patients who came forward with similar charges.

The document shows a timeline of sorts: in July 2016, the state medical board received a complaint from one of Norwood’s patients, and was interviewed by one of the investigators the next month.

Dr. Norwood met with the board’s executive committee nearly a year later to discuss that complaint.

The document states the patient’s claim couldn’t be substantiated and the investigation ended in December of 2017.

However, they were able to verify the other patients’ claims, and that led to a temporary suspension against Dr. Norwood in September 2018, saying his continued practicing of medicine “would constitute an imminent danger to public health and safety.”

Danielle believes the board waited far too long to act on that first complaint.

“Well it goes back to what I was saying, most of the time, especially when women’s complain about something like that nobody takes them seriously you know? They probably just looked at that lady and thought oh she’s just making something up or something," Danielle said.

Mississippi’s State Board of Medical Licensure represents the last line of defense between a bad doctor and their patient.

Sitting on that board: nine doctors, handpicked by a private organization and confirmed by the governor, who regulate more than seven thousand of their fellow physicians licensed to practice in Mississippi.

Their meetings represent a world few patients ever see.

And the results of those proceedings -- restrictions on practice, probation, recovery programs -- aren’t even things doctors in Mississippi are required to disclose to patients.

And few know to even ask about it.

“The only thing you know is whether or not your doctor listened to you, and whether or not you got better. So patients don’t really have a good way to measure any of this. It’s kinda scary that the best estimate they have of whether or not a doctor’s any good is Yelp," said Dr. John Hall.

The board hired Dr. Hall as its executive director in 2016.

“I thought, ‘There’s no chance they’ll hire me for this.’ I’m not a good ol’ boy from Mississippi. And they hired me," Dr. Hall said.

Almost immediately, Dr. Hall began making improvements to the board’s website, allowing the public access to physician rosters and other documents that previously had required a fee just to view.

That wasn’t his primary focus, though.

“There were only two things I told the board absolutely would be intolerable, and that was sex with patients and introducing illicit drugs into the local stream of commerce. And those were the two things that I took on the most aggressively," Dr. Hall said. “I made it clear that they were in my sights.”

3 On Your Side teamed up with Mississippi Today to research the state medical board and how it disciplines doctors, poring through hundreds of disciplinary actions from the board itself and thousands more from the National Practitioner Data Bank.

Our joint investigation found that, of more than 7,000 doctors practicing in Mississippi, only about two percent have public records, meaning they might have disciplinary actions in their history.

But these documents -- once you can find them -- don’t always spell out what happened.

Most of them point to a portion of state code that a physician may have violated.

The most common violation: "unprofessional conduct, including any dishonorable or unethical conduct likely to deceive, defraud or harm the public," which can even mean sexual misconduct, even though those words aren't always included in the board's consent orders.

The current executive director of the medical board, Dr. Kenneth Cleveland, said the investigative process ensures that these complaints will not fall on deaf ears.

“They will not be ignored. If evidence of professional sexual misconduct can be corroborated, we will press charges against the physician and a full hearing will take place unless the physician voluntarily surrenders his/her license,” Cleveland said.

That’s what happened in Dr. Norwood’s case.

His agreement to a consent order with certain wording and conditions prevented a full hearing from going forward.

It also kept him from admitting to anything that could open him up to criminal or legal action.

During what would have been Dr. Norwood’s appearance before the medical board in November 2018, board attorney Stan Ingram reiterated that.

“The consent order does provide that Dr. Norwood is not admitting to any se-- any, any misconduct or medical malpractice," Ingram said.

The board ultimately controls how these agreements are written, and what these doctors’ punishments will be.

In the past, the board, its website and its practices have come under fire for not being transparent enough.

A 2016 Consumer Reports investigation ranked Mississippi’s medical board website the lowest in the nation.

3 On Your Side even found evidence the board may have had at least one meeting off the books, unannounced, at the law firm of the board’s general counsel, which would be a violation of the state’s open meetings act.

“I can only imagine how that meeting would have gone had that been on the books and had you been in the room with a camera running," Hall said.

Our investigation looked at five doctors disciplined over the last three years by the state medical board, including Norwood.

Consent agreements for all five showed violations of “unprofessional conduct” and other statutes as well.

Medical board records indicate that three of those doctors were referred for treatment for professional sexual misconduct, which was also determined by the board.

That treatment is monitored through an organization called the Mississippi Physician Health Program.

“For the right physician under the right set of circumstances, it is a bonafide second chance," Dr. Hall said.

MPHP allows physicians to get treatment for substance abuse, mental disorders and sexual misconduct, all under the same umbrella.

But Dr. Hall doesn’t believe that’s the right vehicle to rehabilitate someone for sexual misconduct at all.

“If your physician is abusing drugs or alcohol, they’re gonna show signs. There is a pretty good chance we’re going to catch them and get them back into treatment before they injure someone," Dr. Hall said. "The problem with professional sexual misconduct, and what sets it apart from everything else, and this I have said many, many times, is that the index occurrence is harm. As soon as you cross that line, as soon as Larry Nassar touched that first patient inappropriately, there was harm.”

While substance abuse accounts for the vast majority of these physicians enrolled in MPHP, Dr. Hall says sexual misconduct accounts for 10 percent.

In other words, that’s 30 to 40 physicians, from his estimation of 300 to 400 in the program.

MPHP’s medical director, Dr. Scott Hambleton, says that number is absolutely incorrect, instead saying around 120 are in the program and those being treated for professional sexual misconduct represent a much smaller percentage.

“A physician accused of these behaviors can not hide out in our program. The board knows about them," Dr. Hambleton said. "There’s a tendency to lump together true sexual predators, which I can tell you when it comes to practicing physicians it’s very, very rare. The majority of the doctors who are charged with sexual misconduct are not that predatory class.”

The medical board’s current executive director, Dr. Kenneth Cleveland, said he believes that, in some cases, those doctors should be given the opportunity to seek rehabilitation when it comes to sexual misconduct.

“My position and the position of the Board for professional sexual misconduct is zero tolerance,” Cleveland said. “However, that does not necessarily mean to never practice again. In cases of sexual impropriety or boundary violations where no patient harm has occurred this could mean suspension and education on appropriate behavior.”

Cleveland also makes a clear distinction between those cases and predatory ones, though he also contends that recovery programs can even work in those cases, which differs from Hambleton’s take on treatment.

“In these cases, patient harm has occurred and is likely to occur again if we do not take immediate and severe action,” Cleveland said. “The usual pathway would be suspension of the license for an indefinite amount of time with recommendations to the physician to seek professional help. Sometimes these physicians are allowed to practice again if they have been through rehabilitation with guidelines and restrictions that ensure public safety.”

However, unless it’s mentioned in one of the public documents under a doctor’s profile on the board website, you’ll never know if that physician is even in recovery.

“Are patients entitled to know?” And my answer is, “Patients are entitled to ask.” And if a patient asks a physician that question -- are you in a recovery program -- the physician has two options. He or she can either tell them or not tell them. The one thing they cannot do is lie. And I don’t know to what extent patients actually think to ask their physicians, “Are you a recovering addict or alcoholic?” Dr. Hall said.

Dr. Larry Stewart, a former ear, nose and throat physician who practiced in McComb, said staying in the program has unrealistic expectations and kicks good physicians out.

Dr. Stewart had been in the program for professional sexual misconduct, even though he maintains he wasn’t a predator.

“My case is isolated, my case is totally consensual and not predatory. And it’s offensive to me and is wrong for me to be lumped in," Dr. Stewart said.

Dr. Stewart entered into a relationship with a woman who later became his patient, and he prescribed her medications he says were directly related to her conditions.

The DEA slapped Stewart with 27 counts of illegal prescribing, and the doctor took a plea deal.

The drug charge, not professional sexual misconduct, ended up being why the board disciplined him.

To this day, Dr. Stewart cannot practice, because he got kicked out of MPHP for what he called unreasonable violations.

One could have caused him to violate his federal parole, when MPHP asked him to abruptly come back to Mississippi after he had gotten permission from the feds to go to Florida.

“It seemed to be a series of trip wires that were just, gee how many more wires can we put out before he finally falls? I’ve learned my lesson. I have not, will never do anything like this again. I just want to go back to work and get back to helping people," Dr. Stewart said.

3 On Your Side also looked at two other doctors accused of illegally prescribing and having sex with patients, Bret Boes and Verena Valley.

Their attorney maintains those relationships were consensual, too.

While Stewart is not allowed to practice, Valley and Boes can, with certain restrictions.

During Dr. Hall’s reign and amid public concerns, the board began taking a harder stance on professional sexual misconduct, reinforcing the idea that a physical relationship between a doctor and patient can never be consensual because of the difference in power.

Some believe the board’s also influenced by private organizations, like the Mississippi State Medical Association.

“Every member of the board is nominated by MSMA,” Dr. Hall said. “MSMA is a professional organization, designed specifically to advance physician needs. There is very little in MSMA’s charter that talks about advancing the welfare of patients. MSMA lobbied the state not to accept expanded Medicaid.”

State law gives MSMA the exclusive right to examine physicians suffering from substance abuse or mental disorder, including sexual misconduct.

It even lets the organization decide whether it wants to examine that physician.

Board president Dr. Claude Brunson said he personally never knew of an instance where a “clear conflict” occurred by a board member because of that affiliation.

That being said, Dr. Brunson will leave his post as president to become MSMA’s executive director in April.

Dr. Hall said he approached legislators with his concerns about that conflict of interest, but nothing came out of it.

He also threw support behind a bill in the 2017 Legislative Session that would have made sex between a doctor and patient a felony.

That bill, House Bill 340, died in committee.

And one year into his new job, the board fired Dr. Hall.

To this day, the state medical board has yet to give any reason for the decision.

“I was terminated without cause, so there is no reason," Dr. Hall said. "Neither I nor the members of the board nor any members of any agencies of the state can give you any reason.”

Some, including Dr. Stewart, have suggested Dr. Hall’s own methods were unorthodox.

“I would love to know what I did that was unorthodox. I would love to know how following the laws is unorthodox. Granted, following the law in the state of Mississippi might be unorthodox," Dr. Hall said.

Our analysis of medical board decisions over three years shows that disciplinary actions against doctors increased under Dr. Hall, supporting his aggressive stance toward bad physicians.

He said that’s another reason to thoroughly vet doctors before you choose them.

“If you’re cynical, then you think of it as what do I have to do to be able to trust my doctor? But most people take the approach of, he or she’s got an office and a license. I can go in there,” Dr. Hall said.

As for Dr. Norwood, in November, he’ll be allowed to ask the board to reinstate his license, but there’s no guarantee the board will do that.

Doctors of Deception: Q&A with C.J. LeMaster - WLBT. Read more >>https://bit.ly/2SNTj8o

Posted by WLBT 3 On Your Side on Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Regardless of what happens, Danielle tells us going into an exam room will always make her nervous.

“I can never see myself going to another male OBGYN again. I just can’t, I’ll never have that trust again,” she said.

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