Researchers in Ontario say sexual assault needs to be more broadly defined in medical settings to accurately capture the scope of the problem.

A study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health examined sexual assaults documented in Ontario hospitals and doctors' offices between 2002 and 2016.

Researchers with ICES -- formerly known as the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences -- examined five databases of provincial medical information and looked at a wide variety of diagnostic and billing codes.

They found there were 52,780 cases of sexual assault requiring medical treatment during that time, an average of roughly 3,500 each year.

Study lead author Katherine Muldoon says that figure would have been much lower if her team had not expanded the criteria used to define sexual assault in a medical setting.

She also says the number of sexual assaults requiring a hospital or doctor visit still represent only a small fraction of the total number committed every year, noting most victims do not seek treatment.