by Andria Borba and Abigail Sterling
(KPIX 5) — Sexual misconduct complaints against California doctors are up 61% since 2017, according to the state medical board. But that may be just the tip of the iceberg. KPIX 5 spoke with some patients who say their complaints went unheard for years.
One woman who doesn’t want us to use her name says she is still traumatized by memories of her visits to Dr. John Warbritton. It started when she was injured on the job in 2005 and was ordered to go see him at his office in downtown Oakland for her workers’ compensation claim.
She said Warbritton was always making lewd comments. “He spoke about my body, he said stuff like I had it going on. I felt uncomfortable, very uncomfortable,” she said.
On one visit, when she tried to hold close the back of her hospital gown she said: “He slapped my hand away and my gown was wide open and I knew he was just staring at me.”
Even though she complained, she says she was forced to see the doctor multiple times over the years. “I wanted to throw up, just knowing I had to go see this person,” she said. “I just felt powerless, I didn’t think I had any choice.”
Warbritton kept on practicing in his office on Frank Ogawa Plaza for years after that, seeing hundreds of workers’ comp patients. As it now turns out, others during that time also say they also fell prey.
In 2013, another former patient who also wants to stay anonymous said she was told to undress when she went to see Warbritton, even though the injury was in her wrist.
“Did you find it odd that you were told to get into a gown for that?” we asked her. Her response: “Yes I did.”
She said in the exam room, things got even stranger. “He asked me to stand up and then he opened my gown and he said, ‘Wow, I see you wore your best bikini to come and see me.’ And I turned around and I said to his assistant, ‘OK, am I being punked? Because this is not right!’ And she just, like, laughed it off.”
We asked her if she thought she was the only one he did this to. “Of course not,” she said. “I am sure there are hundreds if not thousands of women he has done this to. He was too comfortable, like it was routine.”
Sure enough, two years later another former patient told us Warbritton made sexually offensive comments to her when she went to see him for a work-related ankle injury.
“He asked me how big my husband was,” she said. “He went on to tell me that my scar was the same size as his private parts.”
She also said while alone in the exam room, Warbritton physically assaulted her. “He put my foot in his private area and held it there. And I am fighting him,” she said.
The very same day, she filed a complaint with the workers’ comp board. But nothing happened, until a year later when the feds indicted Warbritton for transporting child pornography while flying from Thailand to San Francisco.
A month later, the medical board finally filed an accusation, based on the former patients’ years-long complaints. Warbritton is now in federal prison serving a seven-year sentence.
“They had to do what the doctor told them to do or else they would not get a good rating,” said Waukeen McCoy, the women’s attorney. “He is now suing the state Workers’ Compensation Board and the insurance companies involved on the women’s behalf, claiming they knew or should have known that the doctor was a sexual predator.
“I can’t imagine that they didn’t know that this doctor was abusing his patients in this way,” said McCoy.
The state Department of Industrial Relations that oversees the workers’ comp system told us they can’t comment on an ongoing lawsuit, and that complaints against Warbritton cannot be made public under state law.
“You have due process for the doctor. But what about due process for the patient?” said Bill Reynolds, a medical fraud investigator and former law enforcement officer. Reynolds says in his decades of experience the state medical board protects its own at the expense of patients.
Reynolds showed a list he has compiled of doctors with felony convictions. Many involve sex offenses. “It was very scary to see these sexual predators that they get charged and convicted by federal authorities,” said Reynolds. “And it would take two to three years before the medical board would file an accusation.”
In a statement a spokesperson for the Medical Board of California told us, “The investigations it conducts are confidential by law. It is only after the attorney general files the accusation that the details of the complaint are made available to the public.”
We asked Dr. Warbritton’s former patients what they think of the fact that it took Warbritton getting indicted for child porn for the medical board to do anything. One woman’s response: “I think they should be blamed for this, too, because it could have avoided a lot of victims like myself. It’s not a secret, everybody knows about the monster.”
In FY 2018, the California Medical Board received more than 11,000 complaints against doctors, an all-time record.