When someone goes in for surgery, particularly if they’re at a “teaching” hospital, they may reasonably expect that medical and nursing students will observe the procedure. They don’t (and shouldn’t) expect their surgery to be used as a chance for students to practice performing pelvic, prostate or other exams of “intimate” areas while they’re under anesthesia.
While these exams were never routine, they were typically allowed until fairly recently. They were covered under a rather generic provision in surgical consent forms that procedures may be performed on a patient during surgery for “educational” purposes.
While patients remained largely unaware of what had happened to them, students started speaking up – saying that they felt uncomfortable performing these exams without a patient’s explicit consent and while they were unaware of the exam. State lawmakers in various states, including those in New Jersey, started enacting laws to prohibit these exams.
What does New Jersey’s law say?
The law prohibits the “invasive examination of any patient while the patient is under general anesthesia or otherwise unconscious without the patient’s informed written consent.” An “invasive examination” is defined as “any visual, tactile, or mechanical inspection of the patient’s reproductive organs, rectal cavity, or breasts.” Any consent form for such an exam must be a clearly headed document separate from any other consent form and provide a “full description of the nature, purpose, and attendant risks associated with the proposed invasive examination” and indicate whether it’s being done for teaching or educational purposes.
What are the consequences of violating the law?
Any medical professional who violates the law is “subject to discipline for professional misconduct.” It may also be possible for patients to take civil action for malpractice.
Even if an exam doesn’t cause physical harm (and it may if done by a student with no experience in performing the exam), finding out that an intimate and medically unnecessary exam was done without your knowledge or consent can cause serious emotional distress. If you know or have reason to believe that you were the victim of such an exam, a good first step is to get legal guidance.