How Does Patient Modesty Affect Medical Care?

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Modesty in a medical setting refers to a person’s shyness or fear of exposing their body to someone else. There are many reasons some people feel inhibited about revealing their bodies to healthcare providers, including:

  • Embarrassment
  • Fear of being judged
  • Past medical or sexual trauma
  • Religious or cultural beliefs

This article explains modesty and tips for maintaining dignity in healthcare.

What Is Modesty in Healthcare?

Controlling when, if, and how you expose your body can influence your healthcare experience and sense of dignity. Dignity has four components, all of which impact modesty. They include:

  • Respect: People need privacy, confidentiality, and respect for their beliefs.
  • Autonomy: People need choices and the ability to make decisions.
  • Empowerment: People need to feel important and modest.
  • Communication: People need to feel heard and be offered enough space to ask questions and comprehend information.

Dignity regarding modesty may look like a healthcare provider leaving the room while a person changes and keeping all body parts covered except those the doctor is actively examining. In addition, offering options about when to change and if or how much a person is comfortable exposing are also ways to honor someone’s dignity.

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History

The need for modesty isn’t innate. Instead, modesty is a set of rules people learn through their cultures and other contexts.

Before cultural modesty standards, people covered their bodies to keep themselves warm or to protect genitalia. However, today, because of modesty standards, people use clothing to keep certain parts of their bodies hidden, especially body parts considered sexual, like genitals and breasts.

In addition, people maintain modesty to avoid experiencing body shaming. For example, if someone is insecure about their body, they may wear certain clothing to stave off judgment.

Modesty’s Impact on Health

In some cultures, modesty is a barrier to some kinds of healthcare services, like mammograms. In addition, it can impact whether a person chooses to breastfeed or if they feel comfortable breastfeeding in public.

Medical Significance

Most people adopt the modesty standards of their culture to some extent. Often, people can separate their typical need for modesty when they need medical care.

Some common instances where people set aside modesty in exchange for medical care include:

  • Pregnant people may sometimes need to expose their abdomen and genitals to receive prenatal care and give birth.
  • People must expose their breasts to get mammograms to screen for breast cancer.
  • People with testicles may need to expose their genitals to allow their doctor to check for hernias or screen for prostate cancer.

In each case, body embarrassment is set aside for the bigger goal of diagnosing and caring for a person’s body. However, sometimes, a person’s past trauma or other influences make the hurdle of modesty in a medical setting too tricky. For some, it means they avoid medical care.

Barriers

Avoiding medical care is prevalent. Sometimes avoidance of necessary care is related to modesty.

According to a U.S. survey on avoiding necessary medical care, nearly one-third of respondents said they avoided going to the doctor. People who avoided care included those with significant health conditions and those who were experiencing symptoms.

The top reasons for avoiding medical care include:

  • Lack of trust in doctors
  • Symptoms did not seem severe
  • Denial
  • Worry
  • Embarrassment
  • Practical barriers like transportation
  • Prior negative experience

Gender Differences

A 2019 survey by the Cleveland Clinic found that only half of adult men consider getting their annual checkups. What’s more, 20% of men say they have not been completely honest with their doctor. Reasons included:

  • Embarrassment (possibly related to modesty)
  • They didn’t want to be told to change their lifestyle
  • Fear of diagnosis

By contrast, 93% of women saw a doctor in the past two years, and 73% saw their doctor for a general checkup.

For transgender individuals, modestly in medical settings is especially important for a sense of safety and comfort. Unfortunately, transgender people too often experience discrimination when seeking medical care. Therefore, due to this fear, 23% do not seek necessary care.

Being aware of these barriers can help healthcare providers create protocols and policies that respect a person’s dignity during medical visits.

Recap

Sometimes modesty prevents people from seeking necessary medical care. For example, nearly a quarter of transgender people avoid the doctor due to fear of discrimination.

Trauma-Informed Care

Not every healthcare provider has training in trauma-informed care. But, if your concern about modesty in a medical setting is rooted in past trauma, it may be worth seeking out a provider who is.

Trauma-informed care is an approach that recognizes how past trauma can affect a person’s experiences in a medical setting. Trauma-informed healthcare providers can then use specific strategies to avoid re-traumatization. For example, these practices can help a person who has difficulty with modesty in a medical setting.

Trauma-informed care has five basic principles:

  1. Acknowledge the trauma.
  2. Help a person feel safe.
  3. Offer choice, control, and collaboration.
  4. Highlight a person’s strengths and skills.
  5. Be sensitive to a person’s culture, race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Since modesty protects a person’s dignity and sense of safety, healthcare providers can apply trauma-informed practices to offer a person a sense of control and security around their modesty. For example:

  • Offering privacy to change clothes
  • Offering a choice to stay in one’s clothes
  • Asking permission before touching
  • Only exposing the examined area

Steps Doctors Can Take

While healthcare providers are often pressed for time, they can do some proactive things to make their patients feel safe and respected. These include:

  • Initiate conversations about comfort: Ask a person what makes them feel safe and comfortable. This simple step can open the door for those who may not know how to bring up the subject of modesty.
  • Be patient: Take time to listen to concerns and develop a plan to help people feel safe.
  • Explain the process: Letting people know what is about to happen can alleviate their fears. Tell them exactly how much clothing they need to remove if you ask them to change into a gown. Then let them know how you might move the gown for the exam and how long their body part may be exposed. In addition, obtain consent before touching.
  • Leave room for questions: Something as simple as asking “what questions do you have?” lets people know there is an expectation and time to address questions or concerns.

Overcoming Modesty in a Medical Setting

If you have difficulty with modesty in a medical setting, just getting to the doctor’s office can be a big hurdle. But, you don’t have to endure it. There are some ways to make your visit more comfortable, such as:

  • Make a list: Before your appointment, write down what you want to address with your doctor. This list can help you feel more organized and less worried about forgetting something.
  • Honestly share worries or concerns: Tell your doctor about any health issues you are worried about, including if you are worried about modesty or other things that might happen during your visit.
  • Ask questions: If you are worried about modesty, ask questions about what you should expect. Asking things like, “How much clothing will I need to remove?” or making requests, like, “Would it be OK if I got dressed before we talk further?” are all ways to help you feel more control over the situation.

Find a Supportive Doctor

If your doctor is dismissive or does not respect your need for privacy or modesty, it may be time to seek a new healthcare provider.

Summary

Modesty in a medical setting refers to a person’s shyness about disrobing for medical exams or procedures. Plenty of people feel uncomfortable with modesty during healthcare appointments.

Fortunately, there are things doctors and patients can do to make the experience more comfortable. For example, talking about concerns, setting expectations, and obtaining consent are all things that can make a person feel more in control in a vulnerable situation.

A Word From Get Meds Info

If you are worried about modesty when you go to the doctor, you can do things to put yourself at ease. First, find a respectful healthcare provider who takes the time to listen and understand your concerns. Then share your concerns and ask questions about what you can expect. As you become more comfortable with your doctor, you may find that modesty becomes less of an issue over time.

If your concerns about modesty are debilitating, you may have a phobia. For example, the fear of doctors is called “iatrophobia,” and the fear of being naked is called “gymnophobia.” Phobias are treatable, so if your worries keep you from seeking necessary medical care, seek help from a mental health professional.

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