A male sonographer at Waterville’s Northern Light Inland Hospital allegedly touched a female patient in a sexual way during a visit for an unneeded ultrasound. Credit: Teresa Crawford | AP

If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

A federal agency has found that a Waterville hospital failed to protect a patient from abuse after an incident last spring in which an employee asked the patient to come in for an unnecessary ultrasound exam, then allegedly touched her in a sexual manner.

A day before the April 4 incident, the patient had gone to Northern Light Inland Hospital in Waterville on a doctor’s orders to receive an ultrasound of her abdomen and pelvis, according to a report by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The male employee who administered the sonogram allegedly called the patient “beautiful” and told her he would need to take more images of a hernia from which she was suffering the next day. When the patient returned April 4, the same worker allegedly touched her in a sexual way unrelated to any medical purpose, according to a complaint the patient made to the hospital one week later.

Officials from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services who investigated the complaint found evidence that the patient visited the hospital April 4 and signed a form consenting to receive images from an ultrasound appointment, but they could not find evidence that the patient needed to come back after April 3. A radiologist had not ordered the second exam, and the hospital had no record that images were taken during the appointment. In addition, a female chaperone had not attended the exam, which violated a hospital policy that required another woman to be present when that sonographer conducted exams of female patients.

The inspectors also learned that the sonographer — whom the report did not identify — had previously been terminated from a job at a Virginia hospital in 2006 over accusations that he had used an ultrasound wand to sexually assault a female patient, according to the federal report. And they found that Inland Hospital only did a limited background check of the sonographer in 2007, even though it now has a stated policy of doing extensive background checks for all new workers.

For those reasons, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ultimately found that Inland Hospital had violated a federal rule that patients should be free from all forms of abuse. In a May 16 letter, the agency warned that the facility would lose its Medicare certification in three months if it did not put together a plan for correcting the deficiencies.

Inland Hospital then filed a corrective plan in mid-June, according to Maine DHHS records.

In the plan, the hospital said that it had eliminated the ability of imaging staff to independently bring patients back for more procedures and would more frequently train staff on patients’ rights. It also promised to provide more training to hiring managers on checking candidates’ work histories and ask all candidates whether they had previously left a job for reasons related to patient abuse or clinical competence.

Suzanne Spruce, a spokesperson for Inland’s parent organization, Northern Light Health, declined to answer specific questions about the case, including whether the sonographer still works at the hospital.

The “hospital is bound by obligations of confidentiality to both its patients and employees and is therefore not at liberty to comment on the substance of the allegations, except to point out that DHHS made no factual findings establishing that the alleged abuse did, in fact, occur,” Spruce said.

She added, “Northern Light Inland Hospital takes allegations of this nature very seriously and took appropriate action in this case. Northern Light Health remains committed to achieving the highest standards of patient safety in all of its member organizations.”

In its correction plan, the hospital said that it will continue doing multi-state criminal background checks for all prospective employees. It said it will also keep checking every month whether current employees have been barred from participating in state and federal health insurance programs.

The federal report did not say whether the sonographer who allegedly touched the patient was barred from those programs or whether Inland Hospital had checked that he was. It did say that the hospital had done two limited criminal background checks of the employee in 2007, checking whether he had felonies on his record in Somerset or Kennebec counties. Neither showed any results.

“The Regional Director of Human Resources confirmed that no background check had been done on Sonographer #1 since 9/7/2007,” the federal report said.

In an April 19 interview with hospital officials, the sonographer said that when he first applied for the job at Inland Hospital, his attorney had told him that the charges in Virginia were “expunged” and that he did not have to mention them in his application, according to the federal report.

His job application mentioned that he was terminated from his previous job, and the Maine inspector found that an online search for his name on the internet turned up information that he had been fired from his Virginia job in 2006 and charged with two felonies and one misdemeanor alleging sexual battery of a female patient using an ultrasound wand. It’s not clear whether he was convicted of any of those charges.

The federal report did not say how the sonographer responded to the allegations from the patient at Inland Hospital. The patient, who is not identified, reported the allegation of unwanted sexual touching to a hospital official eight days after the April 4 visit.

During interviews with the state inspector, the patient said she was “so upset by the incident that [she] contacted a sexual assault center for emotional support,” but she did not want to report the incident to law enforcement, the report said.

Following the exam, the patient said that the sonographer had returned to the room while she was changing and looked on as she was completely naked, according to the inspector. The patient also questioned why the sonographer had never worn gloves during her tests, according to the inspector.

She had called the hospital seeking a report from the April 4 appointment, but found that none existed. The inspector confirmed that the patient had signed a consent form to receive results from the April 4 visit, but that the hospital had “no record of any images that were performed.”