Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Jun. 26, 2019 (Vice): Med Students Are Doing Vaginal Exams on Unconscious, Non-Consenting Patients, by Hannah Harris Green:
For decades, medical students around the country have been expected to perform pelvic exams on unconscious women--not for the patient's benefit but solely for the student's experience. Sometimes these exams are performed multiple times by different students on the same patient. The exams involve a student inserting "two gloved fingers into the patient’s vagina and [placing] one hand on her pelvis in order to feel the uterus and ovaries." This patient is never asked for consent prior to the procedure nor is she informed of the exam afterward.
One former student--now a pediatrician in Baltimore, Maryland--learned of these procedures during his OB/GYN rotation while studying at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in the 1990s. He refused to participate, joining in a movement to ban the practice. Ari Silver-Isenstadt took a year out of his medical studies to study the ethical implications of this practice at Penn's School of Education. He subsequently published a study in 2003 in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology that found that over 90 percent of students at the five Pennsylvania medical schools he had focused on had performed vaginal exams on non-consenting, unconscious patients. He noted that students' initial discomfort with the procedure quickly dissipated as it became a regular part of their rotations.
California became the first state to ban these invasive exams in 2003, the same year of Silver-Isenstadt's study. Since then, Illinois, Virginia, Oregon, Hawaii, Iowa, Utah, and Maryland have followed suit. Additional states that have introduced similar legislation this year include Connecticut, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, Washington, and Texas. No federal legislation yet addresses the issue.
Some medical schools have also banned the practice institutionally as well--like Harvard--but others, including Duke University, consistently ask their medical students to perform pelvic exams sans consent throughout their education.
While the procedure invades the privacy of any patient, consequences can be particularly severe for patients with a history of sexual trauma who either find out a pelvic exam was performed on them while unconscious or else wake up during the produce, as did Ashely Weitz in 2007.
Weitz said testifying about her experience in support of Utah's law in February was nerve-racking, especially because she expected there to be other women at the hearing at the state house with similar experiences, but she was the only one. Given the nature of these exams, people don’t know if it's happened to them. She said it was “a very healing practice to say 'this shouldn't happen to me, it shouldn't be happening in the way that it is happening in an institution.'” But there are still parts of the incident that she hasn’t recovered from. “It changed the way that I sought and received medical care,” she said. “I was, you know, thereafter very certain that I was never going to be sedated or unconscious in a manner that would have allowed that situation to happen again. So it was in itself very traumatizing.”
Utah's ban on unconscious pelvic exams was signed into law in March of this year. It requires both medical students and doctors to get explicit consent to perform such exams on anesthetized women. A law professor at the University of Illinois, Robin Fretwell Wilson, credited Weitz's testimony as the primary driving force behind the state legislation.
Wilson herself advocates for requiring specific consent for any pelvic exams. While opponents to legislation requiring consent argue that general consent forms signed upon entering a teaching hospital already cover these exams, Wilson and other advocates for patient protections assert that it is ethically wrong to practice procedures that are of no benefit to the patient without direct consent.
Many advocates, including Weitz, connect the growing opposition to these vaginal exams to the rising tide of the #MeToo movement in recent years. "The #MeToo movement has helped people like Weitz better understand that the violations they endure are part of a wider cultural problem."
Wilson acknowledges that even 10 or 15 years ago, the attitude toward this practice was completely different. "At the time, medical school faculty 'were more than willing to stand their ground and say, "not only do we do it, but the patients in our hospitals have a duty to participate."' . . . 15 years ago, many schools 'did not see it as an issue.'"
Advocates of legal regulations requiring patient consent, though, still fear that enforcement of the new laws will be difficult. "In order for authorities to find out, students would need to both be aware of the law and willing to report wrongdoing by their supervisors, so [Silver-Isenstadt is] hoping the culture is what will ultimately change."