Accessing healthcare whether it’s for a routine check-up, cervical screening (smear test), or because you think something isn’t quite normal can be intimidating and anxiety inducing for many people, especially when it is related to your sexual health. This is often not helped by the unfamiliarity and potential unease of intimate physical examinations.
I have walked out of appointments with my doctor thinking:
- I wish I had asked…
- So what did that mean?
- Am I/ is this normal?
And that is coming from someone who understands medical jargon and has a relatively good knowledge of reproductive health related issues. One of the most important things to remind myself is how it feels to be on the other side of the provider/client dynamic. It is vital to always consider how these interactions can be improved so that one is working in collaboration with people in regards to their health and wellbeing.
When seeking healthcare it is important to remember that YOU are the important person in the room, with questions that need answering and a voice that should be listened to. You deserve a thorough discussion of treatment options, recommendations that are supported by research and a solid evidence base, informed consent for any examinations or procedures and most importantly respect from your healthcare provider. These are all things that should come as standard but unfortunately this is not always the case.
It is of course the responsibility of the healthcare professional to ensure all of the above, but there are some practical things you can do or request to optimise your experience:
- Have a friend/ family member/ advocate present. Having someone there with you who you trust can be beneficial for many reasons. But often they will know what is important to you and will be able to support you in the interaction. If you are receiving lots of new information it can be overwhelming and having someone to discuss it with afterwards can be incredibly helpful.
- If English is not your first language it is your right to have access to an interpreter or interpreting service. Your healthcare provider should not be using your family member or friend to translate. Even if you understand English to a high standard generally, don’t be afraid to request an interpreter for clarity with unfamiliar medical terminology.
- If you are on your own and an intimate examination is recommended you should be given the option of having a chaperone present. A chaperone is usually another healthcare professional familiar with routine intimate examinations and their role is to protect your dignity, provide reassurance if you are in distress or discomfort, and be prepared to raise concerns about the healthcare provider’s behaviour if necessary.
- If you are feeling very nervous and tense tell your healthcare provider at the beginning of the appointment. It is completely normal to feel anxious and need reassurance in these situations. Vocalising anxieties can help you to observe them rather than experience them.
- In terms of treatment and a plan of care there are always options and choices to be made. Your healthcare provider will make a recommendation, which should be based on latest available research and evidence, but that does not mean that is the only option available to you. And one of your options is to decline the proposed plan of care. Saying ‘no’, or asking for more time to make a decision is an option. * It is always ok to ask for more information before making a decision regarding your health.
I hope this provides some helpful tips and considerations. It is by no means an easy thing to be assertive but knowing your rights is the first step. Remember: it is the privilege of the healthcare professional to provide care to you!
*Rare circumstances where there is exception to this (UK) https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/health/nhs-healthcare/nhs-patients-rights/#h-consent