The dreaded standardized patient pelvic exam was much less dreaded this time around. In contrast to Boobies, written three and a half years ago (seems much longer than that), the breast, genital, and rectal exams are no longer cause for alarm for me. They’re no longer mysterious, frightening territories full of stigma and social awkwardness, amazingly.
Six weeks of OB-Gyn started with a refresher on the female pelvic exam–which was greatly appreciated–and the nervousness I’d previously felt with prior genital exams just wasn’t there. I kept searching for it internally, waiting, expecting at some point to become shaky, laughing as to reveal my discomfort, but it never really happened. Maybe it was that the “patient educator” was a nurse practitioner, and so I felt more comfortable with another health care professional–that this was strictly education, passing information from one generation to another. Maybe it was her 2 foot long, plush, purple model of the female anatomy (Violet the Vulva, of course) that broke the awkwardness. I’m not really sure.
More than anything, I think, it’s just my level of maturity and comfort with patients. It’s a part of the exam that needs to be done for certain complaints, and I need to know how to do it. Step up to the plate, assume the responsibility, and get it done. It’s this new-found attitude and outlook–rapidly advancing especially during last month’s sub-internship–that I think is making me a more assertive, competent medical student (soon-to-be-physician). It’s this same outlook that probably also makes physicians sometimes appear cold or impatient to our patients. While we’re trained to always be emotionally, mentally, and physically ready to perform a potentially emotionally, mentally, and physically uncomfortable portion of the exam, patients aren’t. They often want and need time to “get ready” for it, especially when it’s unexpected. (Sometimes that time isn’t readily available.)
The attitude overall, however, probably makes the exam less awkward. Projecting confidence and normalcy to the exam–that you’ve done it many times, and that it’s pretty much standard operating procedures–helps alleviate some of the potential anxiety a patient may feel. Communication is key. I find using medical terminology to be helpful–asking patients to move their “buttocks” toward the end of the bed, instead of their “butt” just makes it at least sound much more objective–that I am simply the doctor asking a female patient to do something, nothing more. Telling the patient beforehand what will happen, and explaining what he or she may feel helps, too. Body language I think is also key. I often close my eyes and lower my head when listening to heart sounds to help me concentrate on them, but I believe it has the added benefit of ensuring patients that I am touching them for medical purposes only. You never know what prior experiences a patient has had that may make them uncomfortable.
It’s fun to go back and read old blog entries–one of the reasons I’m thrilled I’ve documented this experience–to see where I’ve been, and where I think I may be headed. (Oh, and by the way, Boobies still gets a ridiculous number of hits–it’s listed on the 14th page of Google search results for the word. I can’t possibly imagine what people are actually looking for.)