At least five Tennessee physicians have been disciplined for having consensual sexual relationships with patients since mid-2005, state records show.
U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper, isn't one of them, despite conducting such a relationship with a patient he met on the job. His record shows no history of patient complaints, and he's still a registered family practice physician whose license doesn't expire until 2014.
But even though it's at least a decade old, a phone transcript that revealed DesJarlais pressuring his former patient to abort a pregnancy could lead to disciplinary action.
"There is no statute of limitations on filing complaints against licensed health professionals," said Shelley Walker, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Health.
Walker said "anyone who has information" on possible physician misconduct can file a report with the department's complaints division. Complaints that can be substantiated are passed on to the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners, which disciplines physicians and other health professionals.
The board never reveals the names of those who file complaints.
Scores of physicians are disciplined annually in Tennessee for violations, with most of them for substance abuse or overprescribing. Sexual misconduct violations are relatively rare, though the state examines cases only when a complaint has been filed.
"We investigate every complaint," Walker said.
If there was a complaint and the board determined that DesJarlais violated ethics, his initial punishment could range from probation to the suspension of his medical license, based on similar cases from the recent past.
An anti-abortion freshman legislator, DesJarlais often hypes his medical career -- his campaign signs simply say "Dr. Scott DesJarlais." He plans on returning to medicine after six terms in Congress.
In an interview Friday, DesJarlais said he exercised "poor judgment," but doesn't see the doctor-patient relationship as "a disqualifying issue" for a post-congressional career.
"I'm confident that a professional review would allow me to continue to practice medicine," he said.
It's unclear how much the flap might jeopardize a second term, but experts have said Democratic nominee and state Sen. Eric Stewart has a better chance of winning than before the transcript surfaced.
"He's given doctors a bad name," Stewart said.
On Friday, DesJarlais said the woman turned out not to be pregnant.
The state board follows an ethics code laid out by the American Medical Association. The code includes several lines discouraging sexual relationships with former and current patients.
DesJarlais reportedly had the recorded phone call with an unidentified woman he saw for a foot problem. In the transcript, both parties debate aspects of the relationship, but the sex and medical connection seem to be points of implicit agreement.
"Well, it's [your] fault for sleeping with your patient," the woman says.
"Oh, is that what it was," DesJarlais replies. "You didn't want to date me. You're going to try to pull that on me now."
Similar cases led to discipline.
In 2006, the state reprimanded a Clarksville, Tenn., internist after it was proven he conducted a 27-month sexual relationship with a woman for whom he was prescribing medications at the time of the relationship.
The physician's license was placed on probation for 27 months as the board assessed $6,750 in civil penalties. The state revoked the license after the physician didn't fulfill the board's directives.
Three years later, a Cookeville, Tenn., internist engaged in consensual sexual activity with a patient during office hours in an exam room. His license was suspended for 60 days, and the state briefly required the presence of a chaperone anytime he treated a female patient.
A third case similar to DesJarlais' involves a Morristown family practice physician who carried on a consensual relationship with a patient he met at work and later called his "girlfriend."
In August, the state fined him $1,500 and he was forced to take several classes, including one at Vanderbilt University Medical Center called "Maintaining Proper Boundaries."
Records show state investigators sometimes were unable to determine whether a doctor-patient relationship was consensual.
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.