Should you have a chaperone in the exam room? Many say yes


This transcript has been edited for clarity.

I’m Art Caplan, PhD. I’m at the division of medical ethics at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine.

An interesting situation has arisen that many doctors who do physical examinations and primary care are facing, which is whether a chaperone has to be present for any examination of what are often referred to as sensitive areas, such as breasts, genitalia, and the perianal area.

In some institutions, there has been a movement toward saying a chaperone must be present, that it’s mandatory. I know that is true at Yale’s health care centers and clinics. Others do so when the patient requests it. An interesting situation sometimes occurs when the hospital or the clinic requires a chaperone but the patient says, “I don’t want a chaperone. I want my privacy. I want the gynecologist or the urologist only. I don’t want anyone else to be seeing me. I’m not comfortable with anyone other than the doctor in the room.”

Complicating this issue of when is a chaperone appropriate and when can it be refused, if ever, is the fact that the role of chaperone is ill defined. For example, there isn’t really agreement on who can be a chaperone. Could it be a medical student? Could it be a nurse? Could it be another doctor? Should it be someone who at least has finished nursing school or medical school? Can it be a patient representative? There are no standards about who can play the role.

Should the chaperone be available to be seen when they’re in the room? Should they stay behind a curtain or somewhere where they’re not, so to speak, intrusive into what’s going on in the exam room? Do they sit in a chair? Do they stand? How do they behave, if you will? There’s no agreement.

There’s still no agreement on the training that a chaperone should have. Do we charge them with trying to represent what’s going on with the patient or trying to protect the doctor against any accusations that are ill founded about inappropriate conduct? Are they supposed to do both? How do they obtain consent, if they do, from the patient undergoing an examination in a sensitive part of their body or one that they’re sensitive about?

This area really requires some hard thinking if you’re considering having chaperones present. I think there are some online courses that offer some training. I haven’t looked at them, but they might be worth a look to see if they make you more comfortable about getting a chaperone oriented. I think it’s probably important to set a policy saying a chaperone must always be present for these kinds of examinations and list them, or one can be requested no matter what is going on in terms of the kind of exam being conducted.

There needs to be some statement saying that you have permission to either accept them or refuse them – or you don’t. Should they always be present, for example, with patients who are minors, adolescents or children? Does that extend that far out where a guardian, parent, or someone has to give permission?

In this area, I think we can all understand why chaperones have come to the fore, including allegations of misconduct and inappropriate touching, and considering comfort levels of patients to just put them more at ease. It’s obvious that we haven’t, as a nation or a medical profession, thought it through to the degree to which we have to.

I’m certainly not anti-chaperone, and I believe that if patients are more comfortable having one present, or a doctor is more comfortable having one present, or if we all agree that there are certain patients – kids – where certain types of examinations require or ought to expect the chaperone to be present, that’s wonderful.

We’ve got to lay out the rights of the doctors. We’ve got to lay out the rights of the institutions. We’ve got to lay out the rights of the patients. We should agree on who these people are. We should agree on how they’re trained.

We’ve got some work ahead of us if we’re going to have chaperones become a standard part of the medical examination.

Dr. Kaplan reported conflicts of interest with the Franklin Institute, Tengion, Biogen Idec, Johnson & Johnson, and PriCara.

A version of this article first appeared on

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