Guest Comment: Know your rights as a patient | Columns

The term “medical trauma” describes the impacts of institutionalized medicine’s sometimes abusive approach to patient care.

Over time, or in a situation where a patient’s agency is violated in extreme ways, as reported by Psych Central, Social Work Today, and many others, a patient may emerge with PTSD. Sometimes, as the sexual abuse in sport surrounding the US gymnasium scandal and Larry Nasser recently revealed publicly, the line between sexual assault and “normal” treatment can be very thin.

For these reasons and many more, it is essential that patients know and exercise our rights.

Let me show you what it looks like in real time, using a recent example from my own life.

I sincerely hope that you will use it to acknowledge the power you and your loved ones hold as you enter this sacred space of any medical facility with your dignity intact.

I drove an hour to a local health care center in the snow for a medical procedure called an echocardiogram. The procedure would take around 15-20 minutes and would attempt to analyze the structures of my heart.

I asked my GP about the ultrasound and what he was checking.

I did my own research online to answer any remaining questions. If you have strong research skills, the information you can find online is invaluable.

You have the right to know what procedure will be performed and what it checks.

When I was greeted for my appointment, the technician asked me to step on a scale and be weighed. I refused.

You have the right to refuse to step on a scale or to be measured.

Checking patients’ weights has become a daily routine for most medical practices, regardless of the relevance of this information to the medical procedure or patient problem in question. Yet forcing fat patients to step on scales is shameful, and forcing patients with eating disorders to step on scales in public is potentially harmful. If this step causes you emotional pain or seems unrelated to your current treatment, I encourage you to seek clarification or simply decline to participate.

I asked the technician to walk me through the steps of the echo. He only said to me: “we are going to attach four electrodes to your chest”. He didn’t catch my eye when he said that. He did not go into details.

You have the right to ask questions in order to understand what is going to be done to your body, especially the information most important to you personally. I should have insisted that the practitioner keep talking until I was satisfied to understand where he would put his hands at what time, because I have PTSD and that mattered. My decision turned out to be harmful later.

I took off my shirt and my bra and put on the dehumanizing medical “gown”.

He reached for my breasts without saying another word.

I stopped him and said, “I have a trauma. What are you doing?”

He mumbled, “There was nothing about it on your file.”

Rape trauma is unlikely to ever show up on a patient’s chart. What the technician said was a ridiculous and ignorant statement.

You have the right to choose not to share your psychological diagnoses with your doctor. You can request that specific psychological diagnoses not be included in your file.

For example, my file is available via my supplier’s online access portal. I can communicate that I have stopped taking medication, want specific diagnoses removed from my long-term record, or protest specific diagnoses.

Doctors need to see what drugs we take to avoid contraindicated prescription drugs. Our primary care physicians may need to know specific information, such as individual traumas. But it is absolutely true that our record exists as a kind of public document, in the sense that it is accessible to anyone who fulfills the role of a medical provider. This includes specialists we may never meet in person or technicians we may only meet once or twice.

Our information is protected by HIPAA, but these days that only means our information is protected from our neighbor down the street. It is not protected from someone we have never met and whose name we may never know, as long as it is a medical provider under the same insurance network , who has a justifiable reason to access our information.

It’s kind of scary, if you think about it too much.

The tech said maybe another 15 words to me before his hands were flat on my breasts.

At no time did I give him permission to place his hands intimately on my body. Just because he’s a doctor doesn’t make it any less of an incident of sexual violence. I wouldn’t have given that man permission to touch me.

I physically stopped him by pulling away sharply and clutching the dress closed to my chest.

You have the right to practice consent.

You have the right to say no to any procedure at any time, except in a legally demonstrable life or death situation. You have the right to make your doctor uncomfortable, to halt an expensive procedure, to defend yourself and your space.

When I insisted that he find a woman to complete the test, a woman was found.

You have the right to request a doctor of your own gender identity.

You have the right to ask for it when making an appointment with a specialist, when booking an intervention or when you show up for an intervention. You have the right to feel comfortable.

Finally, I continued the procedure with this very nice lady. Then I filed a complaint with my insurance. I expect them to give me back my dignity any day now.

What saved me from further medical trauma in this situation was my firm awareness of my own medical rights.

May you and your loved ones do the same. Good luck. I’m rooting for you.

Wolf has earned residencies with Alderworks, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Rockvale, among others. She has been offered full scholarships for workshops with the Sundress Academy for the Arts and with the New York Writers Workshop. Wolf has completed her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and she’s taking a page from Janis Ian’s (song)book and Searching for America. She can be reached at

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