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Just Because You're My Doctor Doesn't Mean You Can Touch Me; Unveiling the Hidden Power of Consent in Medical Practice.

A white waiting room with blue chairs and wooden doors.
Jax Bulstrode

May 13, 2024

Among all the medical tests and procedures, the ultrasound is one of the simplest. You lay down, feel the cold gel, observe the grey swirls on the screen, wipe the gel off with scratchy paper towels, and you're done. However, sometimes it's not so straightforward.

I’m running late because I have to travel 40 minutes on the train, I get stressed and take the wrong one, I finally arrive and the receptionist is rude to me. I go in and an old man tells me to lie down. Pulls my shirt up and my pants down and he touches me without asking. He says nothing as he pulls my bra up to spread ky jelly across my ribs. He gets it all over my shirt. The room is silent and I am unsure of where to place my eyes. He says nothing, presses his body over mine and rolls me to look at my side. I wonder what he is seeing inside me.

In healthcare, obtaining consent before physical contact is often overlooked.

It's a crucial aspect that embodies respect, dignity, and autonomy for every patient. Yet, in the hurried shuffle of overscheduled doctors and underpaid nurses, obtaining consent before touching patients can be overshadowed, simply forgotten, or not even taught. This oversight can have massive implications, erasing trust, and violating basic rights of those seeking care.

A photo of a doctors hands reaching out to touch the back of a patient.

For those of us deep in the world of chronic illness, navigating the journey toward informed consent often feels like walking into a room with the lights off– I am always uncertain of what I will find, and how I will feel when I leave.

Being chronically ill adds a new level to my experience, compared to my able-body friends I have too many stories of laying in bed while a stranger comes into the room to press on my belly or place cold hands on me without asking. Does the act of entering an exam room, or even undressing to put on a paper gown act as consent to touch me?

The most striking observation is the difference in communication styles between healthcare providers of different genders.

In my experience, women and femmes are more inclined to seek consent before procedures. They take time to look me in the eye, ask me how I am and explain what they are about to do. However, older males, particularly in positions of authority, seem less inclined to seek consent or explain their actions. I cannot help wondering why.

All I am asking for is to be asked, to be granted the acknowledgement that before being seen as sick, I am being seen as a person. Regardless of gender or position – I want my doctors, and my nurses to listen, to communicate, and to collaborate with their patients. I know that my experiences may pale compared to other's stories, but how do we progress to a place where everyone feels empowered in the exam room without including the small stuff?

Back in the cold room, he gives me no clue as to whether my insides are healing, he gives nothing away. He says he is done and gives me a square of paper to clean myself. He turns and walks out the door without looking me in the eyes. I try to scrap cold gel off me and leave the room with wet patches on my clothes. 

I’m already late to the train again.