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Sexual Abuse of Patients

Nurses are responsible for establishing and maintaining appropriate boundaries within their professional relationships with patients. When receiving care from a nurse, patients can expect their nurse to be professional, respectful, knowledgeable, skillful and ethical. Nurses are not allowed to engage in romantic or sexual relationships with their patients. A sexual relationship between a nurse and patient is unethical, abusive and against the law. The nursing profession considers it a serious breach of trust by the nurse.

Sexual abuse of a patient by a nurse causes significant harm. The abuse can have lasting effects on a patient’s health and well-being.

In 2019, CNO completed a research study to better understand what contributes to nurses sexually abusing patients. We are using findings from our research to develop interventions to prevent nurses from sexually abusing patients.

For nurses and their patients, the term “sexual abuse” has a specific legal meaning defined under the Regulated Health Professions Act, 1991.

Sexual abuse of a patient occurs when a nurse:

  • has physical sexual relations with a patient
  • touches a patient in a sexual manner (for example, touching a patient’s genitals when it is not required in caring for the patient)
  • behaves in a sexual manner toward a patient (for example, touching a patient’s shoulder or hand unnecessarily and in a manner that implies a sexual interest in the patient)
  • makes remarks of a sexual nature to a patient (for example, commenting on the size of a patient’s breasts or genitals)

Patient sexual abuse is different from the criminal act of sexual assault, which refers to a sexual act without consent.

In the nurse-patient relationship, nurses hold a position of power by virtue of having:

  • professional knowledge and skills patients rely on for their well-being
  • access to patients' bodies
  • access to patient’s personal health information

Because of this power, any sexual or romantic relationship a nurse has with a patient is abuse and professional misconduct. It does not matter if the patient agreed to the sexual acts.

A nurse is also not allowed to engage in a sexual or romantic relationship with a patient for one year after the end of the professional relationship with the patient. This means, if a nurse begins a romantic relationship with an individual to whom they provided care to six months ago, the nurse’s conduct would be sexual abuse.

Nurses are accountable to maintain appropriate boundaries with their patients. Nurses are not to exploit or harm their patients to meet their own needs. There are serious consequences for breaking the law by engaging in sexual acts with a patient.

If you, a family or acquaintance have been, or are being, sexually abused by a nurse, you can:

  • immediately request that the abuse stop;
  • report the abuse to the nurse’s manager or to another official at the health care facility and request that the nurse no longer provide you or the patient care
  • contact the College of Nurses of Ontario at PublicComplaints@cnomail.org or 416-963-7503 to speak with one of our representatives (toll-free in Canada 1-877-963-7503)

The law requires employers or a health professionals to report incidences of suspected abuse. The patient’s name is not included in the report unless that patient gives written permission to be identified as the victim.

When CNO receives information of possible sexual abuse, it begins a formal investigation.

Representatives from CNO will:

  • contact the patient to introduce themselves,
  • answer any questions the patient may have about the process, and
  • provide information about how the patient can access funding

After a thorough investigation, which includes interviewing witnesses and collecting supporting documents, CNO’s Inquiries, Complaints and Reports Committee will review a detailed report of all the information collected.

If the committee has sufficient information to prosecute, the case will be referred to the Discipline Committee for a formal hearing where evidence is presented before a Discipline Committee panel. At the hearing the nurse has an opportunity to respond to the allegations. Following the hearing, the Discipline Committee will make a formal decision.

If the Discipline Committee finds the nurse guilty of sexual abuse, the nurse must attend a reprimand meeting and their certificate of registration may be revoked. This means the nurse will not be able to work as a nurse and care for patients for at least five years.

At the end of the five years, the nurse will need to prove to the Discipline Committee that they are no longer a risk to the public before working as a nurse again.

CNO representatives will treat patients with sensitivity and help them understand the process.

If a matter goes to a hearing, CNO will provide the patient with the support they need to participate in the hearing.

CNO will protect the privacy of the patient. While discipline hearings are open to the public, all or part of hearings about sexual abuse may be closed to protect the patient. The discipline panel can also order a publication ban, which prohibits sharing certain details of the case publicly.

Once a complaint or report related to sexual abuse by a nurse is received by CNO, the patient can apply for funding to help pay for therapy. The funding is paid directly to the therapist and is meant for treatment required as a result of the sexual abuse. If needed, CNO staff can assist the patient with the application.

Information about eligibility for financial assistance

Nurses are expected to abide by a Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct outlines the behaviour you can expect from your nurse. Nurses must:

  • introduce themselves and their role
  • treat patients with care and compassion
  • keep patient information confidential
  • get consent and clearly communicate to patients the details of care
  • maintain boundaries with their patient including:
    • no sexual relations with patients (this expectation is to be upheld for a full year after the professional nurse-patient relationship ends)
    • declining a request from a patient to be connected on social media
    • declining a gift from a patient

Here are some guiding questions to consider as you reflect on your nurse’s behaviour:

  • How does your nurse’s behaviour align with the expectations outlined in the Code of Conduct?
  • Does this behaviour make you feel safe?
  • Does this behaviour make you feel like you are being treated with care and compassion?

If you answer “no”, please review “What should I do if I suspect sexual abuse?” question for some options to consider.

For more information about sexual abuse of a patient, you can contact the College of Nurses of Ontario at PublicComplaints@cnomail.org or 416-963-7503 to speak with one of our representatives (toll-free in Canada 1-877-963-7503).

Page last reviewed July 18, 2019