How does patient modesty affect medical care?

Modesty in medical settings refers to a person’s shyness or fear of exposing their body to someone else. There are many reasons why 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 health care?

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

  • The respect: People need privacy, confidentiality and respect for their beliefs.
  • Autonomy: People need choice and the ability to make decisions.
  • Accountability: People need to feel important and modest.
  • Communication: People need to feel heard and have enough space to ask questions and understand information.

Modesty Dignity can be like a medical professional leaving the room while a person changes and keeps all parts of the body covered except those that the doctor is actively examining. Additionally, offering options on when to change and whether or to what extent a person is comfortable exhibiting are also ways of honoring someone’s dignity.

ERproductions Ltd / Blend Images / Getty Images

Story

The need for modesty is not innate. Instead, modesty is a set of rules that people learn across their cultures and other contexts.

Before the standards of cultural modesty, people covered their bodies for warmth or to protect the genitals. However, today, due to modesty standards, people use clothes to hide certain parts of their body, especially those parts of the body that are considered sexual, such as the genitals and breasts.

In addition, people keep their modesty to avoid suffering bodily shame. For example, if someone is unsure of their body, they may wear certain clothes to avoid judgment.

The impact of modesty on health

In some cultures, modesty is a barrier to certain types of health services, such as mammograms. Additionally, it can affect a person’s choice to breastfeed or whether they feel comfortable breastfeeding in public.

Medical significance

Most people embrace their culture’s standards of modesty to some extent. Often times, people can separate their typical need for modesty when they need medical attention.

Here are some common cases where people put aside modesty in exchange for medical care:

  • Pregnant people may sometimes need to expose their abdomen and genitals to receive antenatal care and give birth.
  • People have to expose their breasts to have mammograms to check 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, bodily embarrassment is set aside for the greater purpose of diagnosing and caring for a person’s body. However, sometimes a person’s past trauma or other influences make the barrier of modesty in a medical setting too delicate. For some, this means that they avoid medical care.

Barriers

Avoiding medical attention is common. Sometimes the avoidance of necessary care is linked to modesty.

According to a US survey on avoiding necessary medical care, nearly a third of those polled said they avoided going to the doctor. People who avoided care included those with significant health problems and those with symptoms.

The main reasons for avoiding medical care include:

  • Lack of trust in doctors
  • Symptoms did not appear to be severe
  • Denial
  • To worry
  • Embarrassment
  • Practical obstacles like transportation
  • Previous negative experience

Gender differences

A 2019 survey by the Cleveland Clinic found that only half of adult men plan to take their annual checkups. In addition, 20% of men say they have not been completely honest with their doctor. Reasons included:

  • Discomfort (possibly related to modesty)
  • They didn’t want to be told to change their way of life
  • Fear of diagnosis

In contrast, 93% of women have seen a doctor in the past two years and 73% have seen their doctor for a general check-up.

For transgender people, modesty in medical settings is especially important for a sense of security and comfort. Unfortunately, transgender people are too often discriminated against when seeking medical care. Therefore, due to this fear, 23% do not seek the necessary care.

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

to summarize

Sometimes modesty prevents people from seeking necessary medical attention. For example, almost a quarter of transgender people avoid the doctor for fear of discrimination.

Trauma-informed care

Not all health care providers are trained 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 that is.

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

There are five basic principles of trauma-informed care:

  1. Recognize the trauma.
  2. Help a person feel safe.
  3. Offer choice, control and collaboration.
  4. Showcase 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 security, health care providers can apply trauma-informed practices to provide a person with a sense of control and security around their modesty. For example:

  • Offer privacy to change clothes
  • Offer the choice to stay in your clothes
  • Ask permission before touching
  • Only expose the examined area

Actions Doctors Can Take

Although healthcare providers are often pressed for time, they can take proactive steps to make their patients feel safe and respected. These include:

  • Initiate conversations about comfort: Ask someone what makes them feel safe and comfortable. This simple step can open the door for those who may not know how to approach the subject of modesty.
  • Be patient: Take the time to listen to concerns and develop a plan to help people feel safe.
  • Explain the process: Letting people know what’s going to happen can allay their fears. Tell them exactly how many clothes to take off if you ask them to put on a dress. Then tell them how you might move the gown for the exam and how long their body part can be exposed. Plus, get consent before touching.
  • Leave room for questions: Something as simple as asking “what questions do you have?” Lets people know there is a wait and time to answer questions or concerns.

Overcome modesty in the medical environment

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

  • Make a list: Before your appointment, write down what you want to discuss with your doctor. This list can help you feel more organized and less worried about forgetting something.
  • Honestly share your worries or concerns: Tell your doctor about any health concerns that worry you, including whether you are concerned about modesty or other things that might happen during your visit.
  • To ask questions: If you’re worried about modesty, ask questions about what to expect. Asking things like “How many clothes will I have to take off?” Or make requests, like, “Would it be okay if I dressed before I spoke more?” Are all ways to help you feel more in control.

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 health care provider.

Summary

Modesty in a medical setting refers to a person’s timidity to undress for medical exams or procedures. Many people feel uncomfortable with modesty during medical 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 Verywell

If you’re worried about modesty when going to the doctor, there are things you can do to make yourself comfortable. First, find a respectful healthcare professional who takes the time to listen and understand your concerns. Then share your concerns and ask questions about what to expect. As you become more comfortable with your doctor, you may find that modesty becomes less of a problem over time.

If your worries 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 can be treated, so if your concerns prevent you from seeking necessary medical attention, seek help from a mental health professional.