KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Thursday held a ceremonial signing of a bill — prompted by a KSHB 41 I-Team investigation — that prohibits pelvic and other intimate exams on unconscious patients without their consent.
Missouri Sen. Lauren Arthur, a democrat from Clay County, introduced the measure after an I-Team investigation last October revealed medical students and other health care providers could legally perform those examinations on anesthetized patients without their consent or knowledge in more than 25 states, including Missouri and Kansas.
“I introduced Senate Bill 106 to with one simple goal, and that was to protect patients from invasive exams without consenting to them,” Arthur said during Thursday’s bill signing. “Today, I’m so happy to tell people this is not something they need to be concerned about.”
Missouri’s new law specifically prohibits health care providers or any student or trainee under the supervision of a health care provider from performing a prostate, anal, or pelvic exam on anesthetized or unconscious patients in a health care facility without informed consent. Those who violate the law will now face disciplinary action by their licensing board.
Woman who had unauthorized pelvic exam applauds Missouri's bill
KSHB 41 I-Team Reporter Sarah Plake interviewed a Utah woman who woke up screaming in the middle of an unauthorized pelvic exam; she applauded Missouri’s action to end this practice.
“Seeking and receiving healthcare can often feel daunting, and it is heartening to know that Missouri is taking this crucial step in ensuring that even — and most especially — at their most vulnerable, patients can expect to be treated with dignity and respect," Ashley Weitz said.
Weitz has become a fierce national advocate to end this practice, which often happens solely for a medical student’s education and does not provide medical benefit for the patient.
"Telling that story can be very difficult," Weitz said. "It can be very vulnerable and hard and, when changes like these happen, it's a very rewarding and a very healing experience for me as well."
She added, “I am so thankful to and for the incredible I-Team at KSHB who so thoughtfully investigated this issue, respectfully sought and shared my story, and presented accessible, actionable information to viewers and lawmakers to empower needed change. Congratulations, Missouri.”
Kansas lawmaker introduces bill to stop unauthorized pelvic exams
The I-Team’s investigation also prompted Kansas Rep. Rui Xu, a democrat from Westwood, to introduce a similar bill to stop this practice in the Sunflower State.
"I can think of no more egregious invasion of privacy than waking up and realizing there had been a pelvic exam done on you without your expressed, informed consent," he said.
Xu’s bill, however, died in committee.
"I’m disappointed we weren’t able to take action on it this year, but I’m hopeful that next year we can at least hold hearings so we can debate the merits of the policy in public," Xu told the I-Team.
Medical students speak out against the practice
Lawmakers and patients aren’t the only ones trying to end non-consensual intimate exams on patients.
In April, medical students at Kansas City University introduced a resolution to the Missouri State Medical Association stop this practice.
"I'm not out in the field so I've never been in this position myself, but I hope people start to realize this type of procedure isn't OK, and maybe it's something that has been ingrained through practice so people might not be consciously thinking about it," Ashley Glass, a second-year medical student at Kansas City University, told the I-Team.
Glass and two of her colleagues urged the MSMA to oppose these non-consensual exams on anesthetized patients solely for learning purposes.
"Especially for vulnerable communities, we're still trying to rebuild trust with a lot of marginalized communities and the history of medicine and people being mistreated," Charlie Adams, a second-year medical student, said. "Sensitive exams are something we really need to make sure we're doing perfectly."
The MSMA has not adopted the resolution yet, telling students it needed more time to review the measure.
"Some physicians were concerned it would limit any type of emergency care they'd provide to patients, that's not the intent at all," Bethany Baumgartner, a first-year medical student, said. "This is a safeguard for patients but also for medical students. We don't want medical students to perform these types of exams on patients without their consent."
Missouri’s new law includes several exceptions for when a pelvic, prostate, or anal exam could be performed:
- The patient or person authorized to make health-care decisions for the patient gives specific informed consent for non-medical purposes;
- The patient examination is necessary for diagnostic or treatment purposes;
- The collection of evidence through a forensic examination for a suspected sexual assault is necessary because the evidence will be lost or the patient is unable to give informed consent due to a medical condition;
- Emergency implied consent, as described in the act, is present — after which a health-care provider shall notify a patient of any such examination performed
Arthur, who credited the I-Team’s coverage for raising awareness of this practice, has not ruled out trying to make the law even stronger. For example, she may consider adding protections for those who report violations of the law. Right now, whistleblower protections aren't included in the law.
Weitz told the I-Team she supports any measures that will prevent others from experiencing her trauma and is thrilled she could be a voice for change.
"Successes like we've had in Missouri are why it's worth it for me to put myself out there," Weitz said.
Major medical associations the I-Team spoke with also oppose performing intimate exams — such as pelvic, prostate, and anal exams under anesthesia without prior, informed consent.
The Missouri Hospital Association told the I-Team is not aware of any of its teaching hospitals using intimate exams without consent as part of its teaching practices.
Other provisions of Arthur’s new public health legislation includes extending Medicaid postpartum coverage, providing lead education and testing for children, and a health professional loan repayment program.