Saturday, September 29, 2018
If you are being examined by your doctor and something doesn’t seem “right” it may not be. The arrest and conviction of Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics team physician earlier this year, reminded me why I started talking to young people in high school and middle schools about being an involved and informed patient. In 2006 I was talking to a group of high schoolers about patient safety and speaking to their doctors when two sisters called their doctor “creepy.” That was a surprising term and it set off my antenna. I invited a gynecologist and then a pediatrician to talk to the children and their parents about appropriate exams. Even as adults we rarely have any reason to speak about what our exams are like and don’t know what similarities — or differences — are happening behind that closed door.
Over the years women have mentioned that they thought they might be getting what they felt were inappropriate exams. Often unsure whether they were imagining it or what to do about it, they never shared this secret until came along. I visited a police station and asked what the procedure would be if a woman claims to be assaulted or inappropriately touched by her doctor. The policeman behind the desk said that if it were a licensed physician, the accuser would need to go to the state department of health and licensing board to file a complaint.
Now fast forward ten years and there is the #Metoo Movement, the Olympic gymnasts’ case, the sex abuse and assaults by movie and television celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Politicians and high-ranking officials are making the news and priests are being accused and convicted of sex abuse from years ago to the present.
With all this happening around us, why couldn’t clinicians — for whom we are expected to undress and expose our bodies — also be part of this abuse and scandal? When we see a clinician, we are already feeling vulnerable because we may be hurting or injured, not feeling well, wanting to get better, and trusting that whatever is happening is appropriate. Especially because we willingly removed our clothing and subjected ourselves to an exam, how could a woman now “complain” about being touched inappropriately?
I am no stranger to the feeling of an “assault” by a doctor. I knew on two different occasions by two different doctors that what they were doing was not appropriate. When I left the exam room I knew I would never go back and that was the end of it. Or was it?
I have been impacted by this behavior and it helped me form my work today as a patient advocate. I understand why people come forward many years later. Although I don’t personally feel compelled to share the names of those who took advantage of me, I understand the rights of others to do so.
Although I would not share those doctors’ names, I would be devastated to see them put in a leadership position anywhere. I am confident that there are more “victims” out there who would rather just forget about their experiences as I did and as so many women do. We need to talk about what an exam is like and what to expect. We need to be unashamed to share an uncomfortable experience. We need to be able to encourage and support filing a complaint and getting or sending someone for support or counseling. Even if the people I have heard from don’t go back in time and relive what happened many years ago, we can use this as a platform to move forward and make it safer for other girls and women. By talking about this and forming a coalition of groups in support of those who have been assaulted by clinicians 30 or 40 years ago, we can make it safe for women today to say, “It happened to me last week” . . . . because we believe you.