Senate considers limits on invasive exams of unconscious patients
TRENTON – Legislation has been endorsed by the Senate health committee that would prohibit health care practitioners from performing invasive examinations of an unconscious patient without informed written consent.
The bill, S1771, would “put the patient back in control over what is happening to their body during such a vulnerable moment,” said its sponsor, Sen. Fred Madden, D-Gloucester.
“Currently many medical students are taught how to conduct pelvic exams using the bodies of anesthetized and unconscious patients. It’s an educational tool. But the patient doesn’t even know this is going to take place,” Madden said.
Sen. Robert Singer, R-Ocean, said the practice should be banned and the Legislature should bring in medical schools for a full hearing on the topic.
“If this is a widespread situation that Sen. Madden has brought to our attention, that we’re seeing that medical students are doing unnecessary examinations of unconscious patients, that’s outrageous,” Singer said.
Doctors would be subject to discipline for professional misconduct if invasive examinations are conducted without permission. Sen. Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen, said it’s wrong to do something like a pelvic exam without a patient’s consent but wants to be sure the bill doesn’t prevent medical care in emergencies such as a car crash involving a pregnant woman.
“I don’t want doctors concerned about being sued and not taking every step imaginable to save a woman’s life in an emergent situation,” Schepisi said.
Madden said there’s a very broad exception for those sorts of cases.
“It’s an emergency, and I believe the carveout covers any and everybody that’s either unconscious, unresponsive in an emergency situation,” Madden said.
Rutgers Law School student Kate Doyle says such a law can help sexual assault survivors more comfortable seeking medical care.
“Some trauma survivors will read these stories about nonconsensual invasive exams, worry that this will happen to them, and sacrifice needed health care for fear of being retraumatized,” Doyle said.
“These bills are not about pointing fingers at doctors, but rather they are about assuring patient trust,” she said.
Doyle said 14 states ban nonconsensual invasive exams and five, including New Jersey, have pending bills. Only two states with such laws have heard testimony from a medical student or doctor.
Doyle told the Senate health committee that at the start of May, a TikTok video in which a person warned how few states ban the practice got nearly 14,000 shares.
“That this practice is being discussed in the places that your constituents find their news will jeopardize their trust in healthcare providers regardless of whether there is explicit proof that these exams happen in New Jersey," she said.