In 2018, the world of sports was rocked with the revelation that Larry Nassar, a physician for USA Gymnastics, used medical examinations as a pretext to molest nearly three hundred female gymnasts over a twenty-year period. Many of these young athletes were abused while their parents were in the examination room. News coverage of the scandal caused many physicians to reexamine the professional safeguards that exist to protect a patient during one of his or her most intimate and vulnerable experiences, the physical examination.
In fact, the medical community addressed this concern long before the Larry Nassar scandal brought the issue into the public consciousness. The American Medical Association promotes the use of chaperones to provide a comfortable and considerate atmosphere for the patient and physician to respect a patient’s dignity. Am. Med. Ass’n Code of Med. Ethics, Op. 1.2.4 (1998). While Alabama has yet to act legislatively to require the use of chaperones during a physical examination, many states have. For instance, Georgia’s Composite Medical Board defines “unprofessional conduct” to include “conducting a physical examination of the breast and/or genitalia of a patient of the opposite sex without a chaperone present.” Ga. Comp. R. & Regs. 360-3-.02(12). While adopting a chaperone policy in your practice is not yet obligatory in Alabama, there are many reasons why doing so is in the physician’s best interest.
First, the presence of a chaperone during a sensitive examination can help put the patient at ease. Patients who have had very few interactions with a physician may not yet fully trust the physician. Offering the patient a chaperone may ease any patient anxiety arising from unfamiliarity with the physician and helps demonstrate the physician’s respect for cultural or personal sensitivities.
Second, a chaperone may serve as a deterrent to improper patient behavior. The presence of a disinterested third party can help prevent false claims of sexual assault by the patient. In some cases, boundary violations may be initiated by patients. For example, patients may initiate boundary violations in order to gain an advantage over the physician. The manipulative patient may use the threat of a medical board complaint or a lawsuit to demand controlled substances or other special treatment. Thus, having a chaperone present can help protect the physician and other medical staff by discouraging abusive patient behavior.
Third, a chaperone serves as a witness to events occurring during the patient interaction. As a defendant in a malpractice suit, the physician will benefit from an additional witness to the physician-patient exchange. The chaperone can serve to corroborate the physician’s testimony, rendering the physician’s version of events more believable to a jury.
Before undertaking any sensitive examination or procedure, the physician should explain the specific components of the physical exam, and offer the patient the option of having a trained chaperone of the gender of the patient’s choice present. Document clearly in the patient’s chart whether the patient consented to the examination, and whether he or she elected to have a chaperone present. Write a note in the chart identifying all individuals present during the exam. Ideally, a practice should train at least one male and one female staff member to serve as a chaperone; however, patients often decline a chaperone when the physician and patient are of the same gender. As the Nassar scandal revealed, lay chaperones such as family members are not trained to observe the examination in a way that best protects the physician and the patient. Additionally, it may be awkward and uncomfortable for a patient to have a family member present during a physical exam. Thus, the presence of a trained, uninterested observer is the most effective means of ensuring a safe and respectful physical examination.
Occasionally, it will not be possible to accommodate a patient’s desire to have a chaperone present. If your practice does not have a chaperone available on the date of the examination, consider rescheduling the patient’s routine physical examination for a date when a chaperone will be available. If your practice lacks the capability to accommodate the patient’s chaperone request, discuss transferring the patient’s care to a physician better suited to make those accommodations.
Physician boundary violations portrayed in the media are increasing calls for mandatory use of chaperones. Rather than viewing this procedure as an unnecessary regulatory response to a few bad actors, physicians should embrace the protections provided by a chaperone policy. An effectively implemented chaperone policy helps physicians to become more responsive to patients’ sensitivities, ultimately strengthening the physician-patient relationship.
Article by William T. Ashley, III, JD, Risk Resource Advisor, ProAssurance. ProAssurance is an official partner of the Medical Association.