Although pelvic examinations may only last a few minutes, the examination is scary and uncomfortable for many patients. To help minimize fear and discomfort, the exam should take place in a comfortable and professional environment. The clinician should provide appropriate gowns, private facilities for undressing, sensitively use draping, and clearly explain the components of the examination. Trained professional chaperones play an important role in intimate physical examinations, including:
- providing reassurance to the patient of the professional integrity of the intimate examination
- supporting and educating the patient during the examination
- increasing the efficiency of the clinician during a procedure
- acting as a witness should a misunderstanding with the patient arise.
Major medical professional societies have issued guidance to clinicians on the use of a chaperone during intimate physical examinations. Professional society guidance ranges from endorsing joint decision-making between physician and patient on the presence of a chaperone to more proscriptive guidance that emphasizes the importance of a chaperone at every intimate physical examination.
Examples of professional societies’ guidance that supports joint decision-making between physician and patient about the presence of a chaperone include:
- American Medical Association: “Adopt a policy that patients are free to request a chaperone and ensure that the policy is communicated to patients. Always honor a patient’s request to have a chaperone.”1
- Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada: “It is a reasonable and acceptable practice to perform a physical examination, including breast and pelvic examination without the presence of a third person in the room unless the woman or health care provider indicates a desire for a third party to be present.” “If the health care provider chooses to have a third person present during all examinations, the health care provider should explain this policy to the woman.”2
- American College of Physicians: “Care and respect should guide the performance of the physical examination. The location and degree of privacy should be appropriate for the examination being performed, with chaperone services as an option. An appropriate setting and sufficient time should be allocated to encourage exploration of aspects of the patient’s life pertinent to health, including habits, relationships, sexuality, vocation, culture, religion, and spirituality.”3
By contrast, the following professional society guidance strongly recommends the presence of a chaperone for every intimate physical examination:
- United States Veterans Administration: “A female chaperone must be in the examination room during breast and pelvic exams…this includes procedures such as urodynamic testing or treatments such as pelvic floor physical therapy.”4
- Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists: “The presence of a chaperone is considered essential for every pelvic examination. Verbal consent should be obtained in the presence of the chaperone who is to be present during the examination and recorded in the notes. If the patient declines the presence of a chaperone, the doctor should explain that a chaperone is also required to help in many cases and then attempt to arrange for the chaperone to be standing nearby within earshot. The reasons for declining a chaperone and alternative arrangements offered should be documented. Consent should also be specific to whether the intended examination is vaginal, rectal or both. Communication skills are essential in conducting intimate examinations.”5
- American College Health Association (ACHA): “It is ACHA’s recommendation that, as part of institutional policy, a chaperone be provided for every sensitive medical examination and procedure.”6
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