By Mary O’Brien, M.D.
Our culture appears to be in free fall. Movie moguls assault young women. Campus doctors exploit and molest patients. Gymnastics coaches and doctors engage in appalling sexual crimes. The abuse of women and children has occurred for millennia. However, as individuals and as a civilization, we’re supposed to be advancing.
The human person, the human body, must be treated with dignity and respect at all times, at every stage of life. The notion that we can do whatever we want, whenever we want is wrong. It always has been, it always will be.
Professional stature is non-existent without self-restraint and honor. And those in leadership positions who merely look the other way bear just as much guilt as the perpetrators. It’s shocking to realize how much disgraceful behavior is tolerated out of ineptitude, laziness, greed, or complacency. Virtually every sector of our society is at fault here. Until we reach a critical mass of people willing to challenge this horrid behavior, nothing will change.
In our professional realm, there are a few things we can do to restore respectfulness:
- Call patients or clients by their proper names: , Mrs., Mr., Dr., Reverend, Judge, etc. are all appropriate until someone invites familiarity. Using first names with a new patient is not “friendly” as we have been led to believe. It merely signals a sloppy level of unearned familiarity and unprofessional demeanor. A medical or dental office is not a nail salon.
- Male professionals should not be alone in an examination room with a female patient. The “expense,” “inefficiency,” or “inconvenience” of having a nurse or assistant present is an unacceptable excuse for this breach of protocol.
- Manners matter. “Old school” nurses and doctors were taught to ask the patient’s permission before we touched him or her. “May I listen to your heart?”, “May I examine your abdomen?” No doubt some youngsters in health care would roll their eyes at this. But we should never make assumptions about touching anyone (apart from emergencies), and yet it happens routinely today.
- It’s good to remind ourselves, our colleagues, and our students that decorum and propriety are not old-fashioned and unnecessary. On the contrary, they are critically important, and their absence is palpable.
Morals, manners, and mindsets do not exist in a vacuum. When someone is disrespectful or unethical in one domain, that vice will eventually metastasize. Regardless of our age, culture, or profession, we should always try to treat others the way we’d like to be treated. It’s not corny. It’s not outdated. It’s our only path forward.