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"You have the right to say no," Experts explain how to advocate for yourself at doctors' office

"You have the right to say no"; Experts recommend ways to advocate for yourself at the doctors' offi
"You have the right to say no"; Experts recommend ways to advocate for yourself at the doctors' offi 03:34

BOSTON – As more than 150 women come forward to accuse a former Brigham & Women's rheumatologist of sexual assault, medical ethics experts are weighing in on ways you can stay safe and advocate for yourself when visiting the doctor.

According to a 2020 study by the nonprofit Public Citizen, physician sexual abuse is very rare, but it is also widely underreported. 

Also according to the study, 94.4% of reported perpetrators are male doctors. 

"We only know the tip of the iceberg of this problem," said Public Citizen researcher Dr. Azza Abbudaga. "There should be a zero tolerance standard for this kind of behavior for physicians."

While the risk of physician sexual abuse is very rare, WBZ spoke with experts in bioethics about ways to make sure your experience at the doctor's office is comfortable and safe.

They offer three main pieces of advice:

Have a chaperone 

You may not think it's necessary to bring a friend or family member to the doctor with you, but experts recommended it as a way to stay safe. 

You can also ask for a member of the staff to join your appointment so that there is more than one person in the room with you.

"That may be a trusted friend or family member that you bring with you, and if that's something that would help you to feel safe, that can be a really important resource. If you don't have somebody with you, there should be a chaperone available," explained Dr. Alyssa Burgart, an expert in bioethics at Stanford.

Ask questions

Many of us are trained to fully trust any advice that comes from our doctors, but ethics experts say it's perfectly normal to ask questions. 

"If you know, for example, that you're going to have a sensitive medical exam, a breast exam, or a vaginal exam, one of the things that you can say is, you know, 'I like to hear what you're doing. I want to know what you're going to do before you do it,'" Dr. Burgart explained. 

"You've got to feel free to ask questions," added Dr. Art Caplan from NYU. 

"I know that there are diseases, and you have no idea what the doctor's trying to figure out. But still, if they're examining intimate parts, it's certainly fair to speak up and say 'Why? Can you explain to me what's going on with this part of the examination? Why is this necessary?"

In addition, he says, if a doctor can't answer a question you have, "then you've got an indication that maybe it's time to end this visit and maybe schedule somebody else."

Leave if you feel uncomfortable

Experts who spoke with WBZ recognize it's easier said than done, given the power dynamic between doctor and patient and the difficulty finding a specialist. 

"You're thinking to yourself, this guy is it – I'm going to have to travel, you know, 50 miles to find the next expert, or I'll never get in. Overcome that, you've got to protect yourself," Caplan explained.

 "You are never required to undergo an exam," added Dr. Alyssa Burgart.

 "It is your consent. It is your body. If you do not feel comfortable if there is no chaperone, you say 'you know what, I'm happy to come back another day. Let's reschedule when you have enough staff to support this exam.'"

The important tool, experts say, is feeling empowered as a patient.

"You have the right to say 'no,' you have the right to say 'wait,' you have the right to say 'stop, I'm uncomfortable,' and you deserve to have a safe medical exam where you get great care, and nobody harms you," Burgart said. "You deserve safe medical care."

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault please visit the Boston Rape Crisis Center website, the RAINN website or the website.  

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