Sterling Ransone Jr., MD, a family physician in Deltaville, Va., knocked on the exam room door and entered to find the patient, a 28-year-old woman, seated on the examination table. She was complaining about a fever, sore throat, and congestion.
Dr. Ransone asked if it was okay for him to lift her shirt and listen to her heart. She shook her head slightly. He decided to listen without removing the clothing, but when he put one hand on her shoulder and the stethoscope on her back, she flinched.
Instead of proceeding with the examination, Dr. Ransone, who is president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians, asked the patient whether everything was okay. It turned out that she had been the victim of a sexual assault and did not want a male to remove any clothing or touch her chest or back. Fortunately, Dr. Ransone’s practice had a female partner, who came in and listened to the patient’s chest.
“I’m glad I asked the patient what was going on for her because otherwise, I wouldn’t have known what she was going through,” Dr. Ransone said. “The patient felt respected and safe, and the therapeutic relationship was enhanced instead of compromised.”
Patient dignity is one of Dr. Ransone’s most important professional values. He recounts that during rounds in medical school, the attending and several interns and students crowded into the semiprivate room of an elderly woman who was lying in bed. The attending pulled off the bed covers, leaving the patient exposed while he discussed her case.
“I was mortified for her, and I learned a lot from watching this unfold, just seeing this woman lying naked in front all of these strangers and God,” said Dr. Ransone, physician practice director at Riverside Fishing Bay Family Practice, Deltaville, and assistant clinical professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond. “I’ve been in practice for 25 years, and making sure the patient feels comfortable and respected is one of my priorities that dates back to that very first encounter.”
Trauma is a common reason why patients feel reluctant to remove their clothing, according to Lauren Radziejewski, DNP, ANP-BC, clinical program manager, Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, New York.
“We teach and endorse trauma-informed care for any type of procedure that is potentially triggering, and I would certainly put any type of care where people have to take off their clothes as potentially triggering,” she said.
Trauma can be caused by many factors. “Traumas of a sexual nature – having been subjected to, for example – are the most obvious that come to mind, but any trauma that involves violation and disempowerment, even a nonsexual one, can make people more reluctant to be in a sensitive situation that can be perceived as invasive or disempowering,” Dr. Radziejewski said.
Talk before you touch
There are other reasons, often multiple intersecting reasons, why patients are reluctant to disrobe, according to Alicia Arbaje, MD, MPH, PhD, associate professor of medicine and director of transitional care research at the Center for Transformative Geriatrics Research, division of geriatric medicine and gerontology, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. These include culture and religion, generational sensitivities, and body discomfort associated with transitional times in life (e.g., teen or menopausal years).
Some general approaches apply, regardless of the reason for the patient’s discomfort. Others are specific to the patient’s particular problem or concern, Dr. Arbaje said.
“So much of medicine in this day and age is to quickly get down to business, hurry, and move on to the next patient,” said Dr. Arbaje, who also serves as chair of the American Geriatric Society’s Public Education Committee. “But establishing a little bit of a relationship is crucial before beginning the physical exam with any patient, especially with seniors or other patients who might have particular discomforts.”
She advises practitioners to “spend time talking before touching.” In other words, “Find a way to create some kind of meeting, even very briefly, and establish rapport before the patient changes into a gown and before you touch the patient to examine him or her.”
She acknowledged this might be difficult to do in certain clinical settings, but “to whatever extent you can, try to build this extra time and extra step into your workflow.”
She suggested that physicians first meet with the patient in the office or examining room to hear about his or her concerns. If a gown is necessary, the patient can change into one after the physician leaves the room. This builds trust and rapport.
Choice of language is important, especially when talking with older individuals. “Address the patient by their title until you are told not to – Ms. or Mrs. Smith, or Mr. Jones – or ask, ‘How would you like to be addressed?’ And don’t use terms of endearment, like ‘dear’ or ‘sweetie,’ or the plural, such as ‘How are we feeling today?’ “ These are “infantilizing and patronizing” and can impact the patient’s level of comfort with the entire appointment, including undressing and being examined.
Regarding transgender people, “many have experienced sexual violence and inappropriate touching, but even those fortunate enough to have escaped that type of common problem typically have still undergone traumatic experiences just by being transgender, having been socialized incorrectly, misunderstood, or having the ‘wrong’ genitalia,” said Dr. Radziejewski.
Particularly when dealing with a transgender patient, “you have to assume that there may be a history of trauma. Be sensitive to the patient’s discomforts about disrobing, recognize the examination itself as a potential trigger, and take appropriate measures to mitigate the trauma.”
To do this, Dr. Radziejewski gives her patients a “menu of options,” because “when people are navigating the world after trauma, including marginalized identity, they often have a complete loss of control, so the key is to give them as much control as possible every step of the way.”
For example, Dr. Radziejewski might tell a transgender masculine patient, “I’m looking through your chart and see no documented Pap test.” She acknowledges that after explaining why the test is recommended, the patient might be uncomfortable with it. She then makes a series of suggestions that range from being completely noninvasive to more invasive.
“You can say you don’t want it at all, or you can take a swab that I will give you and do it in the bathroom yourself. If you’re more comfortable with a man performing it, I can arrange that, or if you’re more comfortable with someone other than myself – your regular provider – I can arrange that, too.” By the end of the interaction, most patients are comfortable with Dr. Radziejewski performing the exam.
Regarding invasive exams, she recommends setting up an appointment specifically dedicated to that exam, rather than trying to cram a sensitive process into the time allotted for a patent visit, when other topics are also being discussed. “This also reinforces a sense of control,” she said.
This approach is relevant not only for transgender patients but also for any patient who has experienced trauma or some type of shame associated with the body, she said.
Dr. Ransone asks transgender patients what pronoun they would like him to use when he addresses them.
Prior to the examination, talking about what will be done and why further enhances trust, comfort, and rapport.