“When I was doing ob.gyn. as a med student, the attending would have me do a pelvic right after the patient was under and before we started surgery,” said one participant in an online forum. “We didn’t exactly get permission but it was for teaching purposes.”
Yet others don’t see what the commotion is about. “There are a hundred things that are done during a surgery that don’t require your specific consent (some of them much more ‘humiliating’ than a pelvic exam). ... There’s not really much left to be shy about during a gyn/rectal/prostate surgery, let me put it that way,” one doctor wrote.
However, many physicians are adamantly opposed to the practice, and laws intended to stop or limit it are being enacted throughout the nation.
Renewed concerns have prompted new state laws
A few states have required consent for pelvic exams for many years, beginning with California in 2003. But up until 2019, providing pelvic exams without informed consent was illegal in only six states.
Continuing reports of unauthorized pelvic exams indicate that the practice has not disappeared. University of Michigan professor Maya M. Hammoud, MD, past president of the Association of Professors of Gynecology and Obstetrics, and many others attribute renewed interest in the issue to a 2018 article in the journal Bioethics by Phoebe Friesen, a medical ethicist at McGill University, Montreal, that laid out the ethical arguments against the practice.
Starting in 2019, an outpouring of new state bills have been introduced, and nine more states have passed laws. In addition, 14 other states considered similar bills but did not pass them, in some cases because teaching institutions argued that they were already dealing with the issue. This happened in Connecticut and Massachusetts, after representatives of Yale University, New Haven, Conn., met with legislators.
Laws against the practice have been passed by 15 states, including California, Florida, Illinois, and New York. Some teaching institutions have recently been clamping down on the practice, while many teaching physicians insist that at this point, it has all but ended.
A practice that may still continue
For many years, ethicists, women’s rights groups, state legislators, and organized medicine have been trying to eliminate the practice of unauthorized pelvic exams by medical students. Several key medical groups have come out against it, including the American Medical Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
“Fifteen years ago, studies found a substantial number of cases, but my sense is that most of that has stopped,” said Dr. Hammoud.
Yet despite these changes, there are some disturbing signs that the practice persists.
“I don’t have data, but anecdotally I see it still going on,” said Peter Ubel, MD, a professor at Duke University, Durham, N.C., who was involved in one of those early studies. “Every so often when I’m making a speech, a medical student tells me about performing a pelvic exam without getting permission.
“Perhaps in some cases the attending [physician] did get permission and didn’t tell the medical student, but that would also be a problem,” Dr. Ubel said. “The medical student should be informed that permission was given. This helps them be sensitive to the need to get consent.”
In a 2019 survey of medical students, 92% said they performed a pelvic exam on an anesthetized female patient, and of those, 61% did so without explicit patient consent.
The survey – involving 101 medical students at seven U.S. medical schools – also found that 11% of the medical students said they were extremely uncomfortable with the practice. But nearly one-third of the medical students said that opting out might jeopardize their grades and future careers.
“I tried to opt out once from doing a pelvic exam when I hadn’t met the patient beforehand,” one of them wrote. “The resident told me no.”