Doctor and patient ‘protected’ by third party

IN A formal recommendation agreed by the Ordem dos Médicos (OM), the order of doctors, at the end of last month, a third person should always be present in the consulting room in order to protect patients from any risk of assault and safeguard doctors against false accusations.

“The measure is nothing new but it is advice that has been followed less and less recently,” says OM chief, Pedro Nunes. “It is not admissible that we lose this positive procedure,” states Nunes, backing the decision to reinforce the measure.

So patients should be aware that, from now on, a third person should be present with the doctor in the examining room. That person does not need to be qualified, although he/she should have adequate technical training to be an auxiliary member of the medical staff and be subject to the same ethical code as the doctor in terms of patient confidentiality.

The issue of lack of staff is often the reason why the rule has not been complied with in the past. Nunes says: “It’s all a matter of organisation. We

have to take as our principle that the main objective of the health service is to treat patients, not filling out forms, sticking stamps or compiling statistics. We have to use our resources well.”

Despite cases of sexual assault at the hands of doctors being rare, they do exist throughout the world and Portugal is no exception. The OM recommendation serves to protect the integrity of doctors and avoid situations of sexual abuse, something that can have devastating consequences. “They are not physical, but are extremely ‘visible’ psychologically in a patient,” explains Helena Sampaio, psychologist and assistant to the board of the Associação Portuguesa de Apoio a Vítima (APAV), the country’s victim support association.

Despite not having any knowledge of cases where abusers have been health professionals, the specialist has no doubts. “The victims trust these professionals (doctors) more than they trust others. If behaviour crosses the line, the victim could feel hesitant, confused and to blame. However, they must always seek help.”

Doctors do seem to agree with the new recommendation from the OM. “With paedophile cases on the increase, this is an important measure for the protection of our doctors. Having an assistant present is not only important to prevent incidents from happening, but also to protect doctors from accusations without foundation,” comments one paediatrician.

Meanwhile, a urologist comments: “I agree with the measure, but I think the majority of doctors are already practising this. Especially when dealing with more intimate examinations. These are always made in the presence of a third person, who assists the doctor, should he or she need it, and serves as a witness.”