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Doctor violating patient rights

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,

It’s unfortunate that you’ve had a few unpleasant experiences with your gynecologist. Asking for what you need during a medical appointment can already feel daunting, and it can certainly be difficult to be assertive with some health care providers because they’re seen as experts and held in such high regard. That said, when you see a provider, you're paying for a service, and it’s not unreasonable to expect them to act responsibly toward you. As uncomfortable as it may be, it’s a good idea to speak up about your concerns. If after you speak up, the provider is still unresponsive, it may be time you take your business and medical records elsewhere. It’s good to know that many states have a Patient Bill of Rights. If you think your health care provider violated any of these rights, it may warrant reporting them to the medical board.

There are both federal and state laws that aim to protect patients as they seek medical care. 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:

  • Receive treatment without discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, gender identity, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, or source of payment
  • Receive considerate and respectful care in a clean and safe environment
  • Know the names, positions, and functions of staff involved in your care and refuse their treatment, examination, or observation
  • Receive information needed to give informed consent for any proposed procedure or treatment, including the possible risks and benefits of the procedure or treatment
  • Participate in all decisions about your treatment and discharge (if admitted to the hospital)
  • Review your medical record without charge; obtain a copy of your medical record for a fee, though you can’t be denied a copy solely because you cannot afford to pay
  • Complain without fear of reprisals about the care and services you’re receiving and escalate the issue to the State Health Department if not satisfied with the response

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, either in-person or via secure message if they have an online patient portal. Alternatively, if you’d 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. Email isn’t recommended as it’s not 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 to reduce any potential transmission or receive any necessary care. If you need more information on testing options, check out the Go Ask Alice! Sexual & Reproductive Health archives or the related questions.

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Last updated Jun 30, 2022
Originally published Mar 19, 1994

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