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Women who reported they were sexually abused by a cardiologist in Weatherford said they feel betrayed after the Texas Medical Board gave him a “slap on the hand” in terms of discipline.
Dennis Doan has been accused of sexually assaulting or harassing at least 24 women over a five-year period at the Heart Center of North Texas. The Texas Medical Board determined Doan engaged in a pattern of “unprofessional sexual misconduct” with patients by groping, touching or massaging their breasts. On June 11, the board handed down its discipline for Doan’s actions — two years of probation.
The terms of Doan’s probation prohibit him from practicing on or seeing female patients, although he can consult on cases, review records and interpret medical tests.
“The Medical Board chose to protect one of their own over sending a message to doctors that you cannot do this,” said Jan Williams, one of the four women who filed criminal charges against Doan. “But they chose their own. I think their message says to doctors, ‘Hey, we can do this in the future. We’re just going to get our hands slapped.’”
The Texas Medical Board did not respond to requests to comment.
Sexual abuse accusations
The criminal case against Doan began in 2018 when Sunny Woodall reported to Weatherford police that he had sexually abused her during an exam. During an appointment, Doan grabbed her chest and roughly massaged her breasts, according to police testimony at a Medical Board hearing. As Doan massaged her breasts, Woodall felt his erection on her side.
Weatherford police put a call out to the public asking if anyone else had been abused by Doan.
As of the June 11 Medical Board hearing, 24 women — some patients, some coworkers — reported that they, too, had been sexually harassed or abused by Doan as far back as 2013, according to Medical Board documents. Four women, including Williams, pursued criminal charges against the 46-year-old doctor.
In December, Doan pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Medical Practice Act. He could not be charged with sexual assault because the groping the women described Doan did was not considered sexual assault in Texas at the time. Until September 2019, abuse had to include penetration of some kind to be considered sexual assault in Texas.
Doan agreed to a plea deal over the charges and received two years of probation. As part of the plea deal, his criminal record will be cleared at the end of 2022.
Williams, Woodall and the two other women who filed criminal charges against Doan called the plea agreement an injustice. And now, they say they feel betrayed by the Texas Medical Board as well. The Star-Telegram does not typically identify alleged victims of sexual abuse. The women identified in this story gave permission for their names to be used.
Doan’s attorneys said in a statement that the plea bargain was the result of years of investigation.
“In the end, all allegations involving assaultive conduct and sexual impropriety were abandoned by the Parker County Attorney’s Office,” the statement from defense attorneys Christy Jack and Letty Martinez, of the law firm Varghese Summersett, said.
Once Doan completes his probation, “there will be no finding of guilt, the case will be dismissed and he will not have a conviction on his record,” the statement said.
The tip of the iceberg
Physicians across the country rarely have their licenses taken away after sexual misconduct accusations, according to data analyzed by Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Azza AbuDagga, a researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, said Doan’s case is a typical example of physicians being “given a second chance” when they sexually abuse patients.
In 2020, the group published a report analyzing discipline against doctors accused of sexual misconduct over a 15-year period. From 2003 to 2017, 1,354 doctors had their licenses officially flagged for sexual misconduct against patients, coworkers or both.
Of the 1,354 doctors, 38% continued to hold active licenses in the states where they were disciplined. Some of those physicians had their licenses restricted in some way, such as only seeing male patients for a period of time. Others had to undergo psychiatric evaluations or take a course on professional boundaries.
An investigation from the Atlanta Journal Constitution found 450 cases of doctors who were brought before medical boards for sexual misconduct or sex crimes in 2016 and 2017. Nearly half of those doctors kept their license to practice medicine. Even when doctors were criminally convicted — like Doan — they often were allowed to continue to practice medicine.
Stephanie Jones, another woman who pressed sexual assault charges against Doan after she she says he fondled her during exams, said she felt disappointed and betrayed by the board’s lenient discipline.
“I don’t believe the Medical Board protects medical patients in the state of Texas,” Jones said. “Too many times they’ve let these guys off, let them practice again. We have a doctor shortage, they say. That’s not an excuse to let a predator continue to practice.”
The data on physician sexual abuse is difficult to obtain and incomplete. The reports used by Public Citizen came from the National Practitioners Data Bank, which is not available to the public. The database only includes physicians who were officially disciplined by a medical board for misconduct. There is no known database that tracks complaints made against physicians that do not result in disciplinary action, AbuDagga explained.
“We only know the tip of the iceberg of the problem,” AbuDagga said.
Data on sexual abuse by doctors also doesn’t capture the assaults that go unreported. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that fewer than one in four cases of sexual assault in the U.S. is reported to police.
In the same month Doan was officially disciplined by the Texas Medical Board, the board disciplined three other physicians on the basis of sexual misconduct investigations. A doctor in Houston was accused of sexually harassing a colleague and is now required to have a chaperone when seeing female patients. Another physician out of Florida voluntarily surrendered his license because he is under investigation for “sexual boundary violations.” A third physician in Marshall, Texas, voluntarily surrendered his license after two male patients alleged he touched them inappropriately. His license was restricted in 2020 after the first patient came forward.
Jones and Williams said Doan massaged and fondled their breasts under the guise of medical care during cardiology appointments. The shame they felt continues to follow them today. They worry when Doan is able to practice on patients again, more victims will trail in his wake.
Four women initially pressed criminal charges against Doan.
Woodall, Williams and three other women are also plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Doan and the Heart Center of North Texas. The Heart Center denied all claims of wrongdoing in a petition filed in response to the suit.
Only one patient, Pat Wagner, did not have her case against Doan dismissed. Wagner, 78, said at an appointment in 2016, Doan pulled her shirt up to her chin, grabbed both of her breasts and asked, “Are you taking care of them?” according to her testimony for the lawsuit. Doan was initially charged with assault on the elderly in Wagner’s case, but the charge was changed to Violation of the Medical Practice Act in the plea deal.
According to court transcripts, Doan denies that he touched anyone inappropriately or in a sexual way. He said he pleaded guilty to violation of the Medical Practice Act, according to a deposition for the lawsuit on April 22, because he failed to explain to Wagner what he was doing in the course of his physical examination.
“When I used the stethoscope to examine (Wagner),” he said, according to the transcript, “I inadvertently may have touched the edge of her breast when I listened to her heart sound, and ... she felt like that was offensive to her.”
He denied touching Williams’ or Jones’ breasts at all.
“To this day, he is still denying he has done anything wrong,” Williams said. “And as long as someone believes they are not guilty of what is being said, they’ll continue with their wrongdoing.”
Doan’s probation terms do not restrict him in any way from interacting with female coworkers, despite at least seven women reporting Doan sexually harassed them when they were in employed at the Heart Center of North Texas.
Physicians who sexually abuse a patient often have other victims — sometimes hundreds over the course of decades. Former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar made national headlines in 2016 when 200 girls and women came forward and accused him of abuse since the early 1990s.
“These physicians keep practicing for 20 or more years,” AbuDagga said. “And they leave behind a trail of misery. They destroy the lives of many, many of their patients. And they go unpunished.”
According to AbuDagga’s report, of the 1,354 doctors who faced discipline due to sexual misconduct from 2003 to 2017, 221 of them had previous sexual misconduct reports made against them.
Aims for change
In May 2020, the Federation of State Medical Boards published a report on sexual abuse within the medical community and made various recommendations to address this widespread problem. The federation said misconduct, including sexual misconduct, should provide the basis for a medical board to revoke a physician’s license.
“Findings of even a single case of sexual misconduct are often sufficiently egregious as to warrant revocation of a physician’s medical license,” the federation said in the report.
And yet, medical boards still tend to side with physicians, even if the board itself finds the physician poses a danger to the public, AbuDagga said.
In Doan’s case, the board determined in March 2018 that Doan’s “continued practice would constitute a continuing threat to the public welfare,” and suspended his license.
The suspension was lifted in June and replaced with the two-year probation.
Medical boards are made up of other physicians and they tend to side with the perpetrator, AbuDagga said. Usually, the board negotiates a compromise with the doctor and their health organization. In Doan’s case, a hearing was initially scheduled in March, where the women planned to testify against Doan. Instead, the board canceled the hearing and entered into a deal with Doan, according to public documents.
As part of his deal with the Medical Board, Doan is required to take a course on professional boundaries within a year of the board’s order. If he follows all provisions of his probation terms, he will likely be able to practice with female patients again.
The board often requires physicians to attend a sexual misconduct training in these cases, but they are often eventually able to practice medicine again. AbuDagga said the board sees the physicians as able to be “rehabbed” after sexual misconduct. She has seen no evidence this works.
“Especially in this case,” AbuDagga said about Doan. “They’re talking about two dozen victims. What more evidence do we need that this physician is a threat to the public?”
As part of Public Citizen’s report, the agency made 14 recommendations to create a “zero-tolerance policy” toward physician sexual abuse. Those recommendations include mandated reporting in the medical community for sexual abuse, investigations of each complaint of physician sexual abuse and mandatory revocation of the license of any physician found to have engaged in sexual abuse.
Timeline of events
2011: Dennis Doan issued medical license.
2013: The first patient complains to The Heart Center of North Texas about inappropriate behavior from Doan.
2014: Jan Williams first assaulted by Doan, according to lawsuit.
2017: Williams removes herself from Doan’s care after 6 incidents of Doan giving her unnecessary breast exams, according to the lawsuit.
Jan. 10, 2018: Sunny Woodall has an appointment with Doan and says she is assaulted.
Jan. 12, 2018: Woodall reports the assault to Weatherford police.
Feb. 15, 2018: Media outlets publish stories about Doan, ask additional victims to step forward.
February 2018: Williams and Jones go to police.
Feb. 15, 2018: Doan is arrested, per criminal records, and charged with assault of Woodall.
March 1, 2018: Doan is temporarily suspended by the Texas Medical Board.
June 14, 2019: Five women filed a civil lawsuit filed against the Heart Center of North Texas.
Dec. 22, 2020: Doan pleads guilty to one count of violation of the Medical Practice Act.
March 2021: Hearing for Doan scheduled by the Texas Medical Board canceled.
June 11, 2021: Medical Board ratifies official discipline of Doan — two years of probation from this date — and makes discipline public.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, help is available. Call 1-800-656-HOPE(4673) to speak with a crisis support service at RAINN.