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Trisha Torrey

Airports, Security, TSA Screenings and Smart Patients

By November 22, 2010

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Rarely do I get asked by so many people to blog about a topic in the news. Those requests came as a result of stories in the news about the new TSA screening procedures. Patients have been embarrassed; from a woman who was asked to remove her breast prosthesis, to a man who has suffered bladder cancer, wears an ostomy bag, and who was embarrassed because his pat-down caused the bag to leak urine all over him.

I can see why those people are upset! I can't even imagine how embarrassing and humiliating that would be. And I suspect the reason most have asked me to write about it is because there don't seem to be good options for those patients who choose the pat-downs over the new full body scanners.

I gave it some thought. What can I add to the conversation or list of options? Almost nothing - and - I realized that I can't because this isn't a patient empowerment topic, really.

Patient empowerment is about getting your best health care, partnering with your providers, making wise consumer choices, researching and understanding and mostly, taking responsibility for your own health care decisions.

But it's not about airport security. It's not about national defense or terrorism or keeping our country safe. And helping people make wise healthcare choices doesn't intersect much at all with TSA screenings, full body scanners or pat-downs.

There are, however, two things I can add to the conversation to help you, my reader, decide what to do about managing your transportation and transitions through airports:

1. The big questions about body scanners vs pat-downs are two-fold: personal modesty, and radiation. Of course, the modesty question has been raised, argued, defended and more here on the patient empowerment website many times. You can follow the discussions here. And I still say that no matter what your feeling about modesty, and the challenges of getting good care if you are modest, there are times when modesty must be forfeited for the greater good. If a man has the possibility of prostate or testicular cancer, he may have to yield modesty for that good care. And now, if you want to travel by air, you will have to yield your modesty to a full-body scanner or a pat down. It's the greater good for you, personally. And the greater good for national security. For now, at least, there are no options.

Radiation - while smart patients know that it's smart to keep track of their exposure to radiation as they are tested through the use of CT scans and X-rays, most of us have no need to be concerned about the amount of radiation we might be exposed to through the full-body scanners in airports. I base this on reports from Reuters, ABC News, and Healthday.

2. None of this will be sorted out before millions of Americans take to the air this week for the Thanksgiving holiday - if ever. So if you will be among them, here's my only piece of advice: get to the airport very early - an hour or two before you might have previously - to be sure you don't miss your flights. That's not patient empowerment. That's simply smart planning.


See what Pam Stephan, Breast Cancer guide, has to say about TSA screenings.

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Learn more ~ or join the conversation!


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Photo Tim Boyle, Getty Images

November 22, 2010 at 12:22 pm
(1) WB says:

I have no fears about the scanner, but my home airport won’t have one for several more months. Instead, if you set off the metal detector or they select you at random they now give you the invasive pat down. Without a choice, you have to let strangers probe wherever they want, if you want to travel by air. Instead, I could drive 150 miles and use an airport that has the full body scanner.

I am very concerned for rape/abuse survivors being subjected to this treatment, especially if a prosthesis or surgical implant sets off the scanners or results them still being sent for pat down. I’ve seen far less invasive/humilating things set off PTSD in such people.

The terrorists have won.

November 22, 2010 at 12:34 pm
(2) Julie says:

I have a strange but ever bothering quesiton before I do fly and agree to the body scanner. As a young women with a period I am owrried about traveling when and if it is my time of the month. If wearing atampon thorugh the body scanner what will teh outcome be of that. Will htey make me remove this as it will be see as something “in” my body?

November 23, 2010 at 12:22 pm
(3) Father Daniel says:

I have no worries about the full-body scanner, perhaps since I’ve been in hospital enough times to lose artificial modesty. So long as the radiation levels are well within safe limits, I have no concern either, as I fly only once or twice a year.

But, OTOH, I would not want to have an aggressive pat down where the TSA screener “touched my junk.”

Seeing is one thing, touching is another.

Since I am getting older and more rickety, I would prefer the full-body scan to having to take my shoes off and ending up standing on one leg to get them back on. I’ve nearly fallen a couple times during that routine, which reminds me of a Three Stooges skit.

November 23, 2010 at 7:38 pm
(4) Doug Capra says:

Trisha writes: ” If a man has the possibility of prostate or testicular cancer, he may have to yield modesty for that good care. And now, if you want to travel by air, you will have to yield your modesty to a full-body scanner or a pat down.”

It’s easy to generalize with a phrase like “yield modesty.” But that doesn’t carry any real meaning until you contextualize it. If what you mean by “yield modesty” at the airport is a semi-professional security agent touch your genitals, I would question your argument. Same with your point about prostate cancer. One could have prostate cancer, have to go through a embarrassing procedure, be willing to yield modesty to a reasonable degree — and still suffer from serious modesty violations, humiliation, and disrespect within our health care system. You’ve got to be more specific, Trisha, when discussing this topic.
Doug Capra

November 24, 2010 at 5:18 am
(5) marahd says:

WOULD THIS fit the criteria of patient empowerment if , in order to get into a hospital lets say five years from now when many shootings have made it required, we would need to be genitally frisked in public by mere security, or submit to a full body scanner (where the images most certainly can be saved and are being saved) that would show any tampons being worn or colostomy bags or breast prosthesis, or artificial limbs or fake eyes or wigs or internal shunts or pacemakers??????????????? to me, this is an issue of medical privacy and falls under the hippa (sp?) law and i am very puzzled by your article!!!!!!!!!!!!

June 18, 2011 at 1:15 am
(6) Jeff Rockyflatsgear says:

Dear Ms. Torrey the true x-ray dose to the skin, testicles and breast is about 1/50 to 1/20 th of a chest x-ray. Small but not insignificant.

The small published dose used to set policy is based on “effective” dose an estimate of internal organ cancer rates not applicable to xrays under 5oKvp. Your skin and breast tissues take the brunt of the lower energy x-ray exposure acting as a shield to internal organs, making the “effective” appear so small. Hope that helps.


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