Performing intimate exams under anesthesia (EUA) is a standard part of medical training. Yet,
“Whenever I talk about this at conferences around the country, people always come up to me and say it’s still happening at their institutions,” Lori Bruce, MA, MBE, HEC-C, associate director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., told this news organization.
Most think this is a women’s issue, which occurs only in unconscious patients, she said. But Ms. Bruce found otherwise in a survey last year in which she polled the general public about their intimate exam experiences.
“Unconsented exams happen much more than we imagined, and they happen as often to men [having] prostate exams without consent as to women. Black [respondents] were nearly four times more likely to have reported receiving an unconsented intimate pelvic or prostate exam,” she said, based on her research. And Ms. Bruce believes it can happen across the economic spectrum.
Concern about unconsented EUAs arose in the early 2000s. In a study at that time, 75% of medical students reported that their patients had not given consent to be examined during surgical procedures. An ethics committee of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published guidelines for EUAs and states began passing legislation with patient protections and medical training consent policies.
California is believed to be the first to adopt legislation outlawing unconsented pelvic exams for training purposes in 2003, followed by Virginia in 2007, along with a handful of other states.
In 2019, on the heels of the #MeToo movement and renewed calls to end unconsented exams, more patients and providers began to speak publicly about their experiences with the practice. Some posted on social media using the #MeTooPelvic hashtag. In 2022, an award-winning documentary was also released about consent, “At Your Cervix.”More states subsequently passed legislation, and some medical schools strengthened their EUA consent policies.
Today, nearly half the states in the country have enacted laws against unconsented intimate EUAs, with some carrying misdemeanor charges for both the individual conducting the exam and the supervising physician. Other states leave open the option to fine the physician and revoke or suspend medical licenses.
Much of the new legislation requires explicit consent for intimate exams involving the pelvis, prostate, and rectum, with exceptions for emergency procedures and, in some cases, the collection of court-ordered forensic evidence. In addition, several states, including Colorado, Indiana, and Ohio, have pending or recently introduced bills. Last month, sister bills in Missouri passed the House and Senate, gaining more traction than previous legislative attempts. A similar bill was introduced in the Kansas House several times, including this year, and is expected to be on the agenda again in the next session.
Intimate exams on patients without consent are “unethical and unacceptable,” said Alison Whelan, MD, chief academic officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Although medical students learn sensitive procedures through simulation labs and gynecological teaching associates – individuals specifically trained to help students develop physical exam skills – EUAs require strict adherence to widely accepted guidelines.
“Learners in the clinical setting should only perform such examinations for teaching purposes when the exam is explicitly consented to, related to the planned procedure, performed by a student who is recognized by the patient as a part of their care team, and done under direct supervision by an educator,” Dr. Whelan said.