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Patients, Medicine and Modesty in a Healthcare or Medical Setting

How Does Modesty Affect Medical Care?

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Updated December 19, 2010

Do you have a story to tell about how your modesty was violated by a healthcare provider? Were you embarrassed because of the way you were treated? Please share your story with us.

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A blog post about men and modesty in a medical or healthcare setting triggered a storm of comments. After looking into the topic further, it seems there are a number of aspects to consider to better understand why modesty and medical care - for men OR women - is an important topic to address.

How do we define patient modesty?

Modesty, when applied to a medical setting, refers to the shyness about, or fear of, exposing one's body parts to someone else. The patient is embarrassed because he or she believes their body parts are being judged.

Body parts may include genitals, breasts, or any body part a patient feels uncomfortable exposing for any reason, including too much or too little fat, a birthmark, or some other body attribute.

"Someone else" may include doctors, nurses or other healthcare workers - whether or not they are of the same gender as the patient. Some patients feel less apt to be modest if their provider is of the same gender they are, but some are modest regardless of the gender of the healthcare worker.

We aren't born being modest because we aren't born feeling judged by someone else. Think back to the first human beings who roamed the earth without clothing, except to keep themselves warm, or to protect genitalia. They felt no embarrassment about their bodies - thus, no modesty.

As human beings began judging each others bodies, modesty developed. If someone felt as if their body parts were judged as too much or too little, too large or too small, defected in some way, or simply not the same as someone elses, then they covered up that embarrassing part in an attempt to stave off the judgment.

Further, modesty is cultural, including the effect of religious beliefs. Different cultures dictate what parts of human bodies must be covered, or may be exposed. Think about some African cultures where women do not cover their breasts. Then think about Middle Eastern cultures where women wear burkas to cover their bodies and their faces completely, for political and religious reasons. The sexual revolution in the 1960s and 1970s set the stage for more revealing clothing, which affected modesty, too - setting some people free from feeling modest, and creating even more embarrassment to others.

Modesty would not exist if we weren't afraid of judgment. It's that feeling that someone will judge us to be more or less than someone else, or in some way failing to adhere to our cultural beliefs that embarrasses us, and makes us afraid of exposing those parts of our bodies that we are afraid will cause negative judgment.

What's the problem with modesty and medical patient care?

Most of us are modest to some extent, but life circumstances allow us to separate our feelings of being judged from our need for medical care. Women get pregnant and choose pre-natal care. They set aside their modesty because they realize it's more important that their babies develop in a healthy body environment, and will be born healthy. Women get the mammograms they need because they want to catch possible breast cancer as early as possible. Men go for check-ups and are told to turn their heads and cough while the doctor checks their testicles. In each case, body embarrassment is set aside for the bigger goal of body knowledge.

But some people develop that sense of modesty to the point where they will not seek medical care because they fear that judgment. Some deny themselves preventive care like check-ups because of that sense of modesty. A report in the Wall Street Journal reviewed a study that showed that only 54% of men get checkups - presumably the other 46% have modesty issues at least to some extent. About 74% of women seek preventive care - again, we can assume that some of the remaining 26% avoid care due to modesty issues. Some are so fearful of that judgment that they won't even seek medical care when their symptoms are obviously problematic like severe pain or bleeding. At an extreme, a patient's death could be blamed on modesty as easily as it could be blamed on the disease or condition that caused his or her body to die.

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