Doctor's wrongs, patient's rights

Originally Published: March 19, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 17, 2014
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Alice,

On a recent gynecological visit, I requested an HIV test. The doctor, a woman, responded with the question, "Why, too many New York nights?" I was shocked by her response, but, because I felt intimidated by her, I disregarded her remark. After I told her that I had never been tested and thought it was time, she looked at me and said, "I think you're okay." Needless to say, I did not get tested by her.

During my exam, a Pap smear, she put on her rubber gloves and then realized that she couldn't find an instrument. So she rummaged through the drawer, went to the door and turned the knob, requested something from the nurse, closed the door, and proceeded with the exam. She never changed her gloves. I was appalled, but never said anything. I don't know why, but she totally intimidated me — one of those women who seem to have all, brains, beauty family, wealth, etc.

My question to you is, do I report this woman? If so, to whom? It happened several months ago and it was outside of NY state. I appreciate any reply. Thank you.

—Intimidated by uniforms

Dear Intimidated by uniforms,

Agreed - this was not a great situation and it may be difficult to be assertive with some health care providers. When you see a provider, you are paying for a service, and ideally, at the moment, that person needs to act responsibly toward you. As difficult as it may be, it is a good idea to speak up. If after you speak up, the provider is still unresponsive, it's time you take your business and medical records elsewhere. Additionally, if the situation in question is serious enough, it may warrant reporting the health care provider to a higher entity (more on that later).  Many states have laws that protect medical patients and many healthcare facilities have a Patient Bill of Rights. To get an idea of what is typically included in such a document, here’s an example from the Patients’ Bill of Rights from the New York State Department of Health:

The patient has a right to:

  • Be treated fairly and openly in all matters, including sexual identity, race, gender, age, and socioeconomic status.
  • Considerate, respectful, and confidential care.
  • Obtain all information regarding his/her visit.
  • Receive information necessary to give informed consent prior to the start of any office procedure and/or treatment.
  • Refuse treatment and be informed of the medical consequences of his/her action.
  • Receive a copy of his/her medical records, consistent with the state statutes on this matter.

Adapted from Patients' Bill of Rights, New York State Hospital Code Law, New York State Department of Health — varies by state and province

In terms of your recent experience, as a courtesy, you could inform the provider of how you perceived her manner and delivery of services. Alternatively, if you would feel more comfortable, you may speak with another health care provider in the practice or contact the office administrator to voice your concerns via phone or letter. E-mail is probably not recommended as e-mail is not considered a secure form of communication.

If you get a negative response from the office (or would prefer not contacting them), try contacting the state’s medical licensing board. You may also be able to contact your state’s medical society or association for assistance. As far as HIV testing — good for you!  Taking care of yourself, knowing your status, and being proactive is the way to go.  If you need more information on testing options, check out the Alice! Sexual Health Archive or the related questions below.

Alice

January 27, 2005

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Dear Alice,

Dear Intimidated by uniforms,

I know how you feel. Doctors can be intimidating, but that does not give them the right to disrespect your health and integrity. I was abused by...

Dear Alice,

Dear Intimidated by uniforms,

I know how you feel. Doctors can be intimidating, but that does not give them the right to disrespect your health and integrity. I was abused by a doctor at a young age, but because I felt she had more authority over me, I never said anything till years later. It's your right, if at anytime you feel uncomfortable, to say, "excuse me, this visit is over," and get up and leave. It may sound scary, but me, my health, my money, and ultimately my life is on the line, so there is no room for a doctor to be rude, offensive, or abusive to me. Good luck!

June 21, 2002

20434
Alice, I want to add that it is very important, if you are truly upset by the way a doctor has dealt with you, to tell that doctor. Someone who says "too many New York nights?" might be feeling...
Alice, I want to add that it is very important, if you are truly upset by the way a doctor has dealt with you, to tell that doctor. Someone who says "too many New York nights?" might be feeling uncomfortable herself and trying to break the ice. It might really help her develop the rapport with her patients that she needs to serve them well if she gets a polite letter that says that you were very uncomfortable and explains why. It is up to you, ultimately, to decide whether to write to the hospital/office or to the doctor directly, but either way, you help all of her future patients a little by politely explaining what is wrong with what she said. Some doctors still haven't confronted their own biases about STDs and HIV, who gets them and who doesn't.