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Assistants Attend Exam to Protect Doctor

Women who go for their yearly gynecological exam know the drill.

If their doctor is male, the exam doesn’t begin until a female nurse or medical assistant is present.

But few women know that the assistant is there to protect the doctor, not the patient. And if the patient is abused, the assistant is under no legal obligation to report the incident to police or a medical board.

The only law that comes close deals with minors or vulnerable adults, defined as those with a disability or the elderly.

“Maybe we need one called the Finkel law,” said David Michael Cantor, a medical malpractice attorney in Scottsdale.

He was referring to Brian Finkel, an abortion doctor who was arrested Wednesday and accused of fondling at least nine patients over the past eight years.

Medical assistants were present during the questionable exams and abortions, though it is unclear what they saw. Although they did not come forward on their own, several assistants, when questioned by Phoenix police, said they were uncomfortable that Finkel was touching patient’s breasts during visits.

Unlike registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants, medical assistants are not bound by any ethical obligation to report suspected cases of sexual abuse, according to the Arizona Board of Nursing.

But at least one abortion doctor says the medical assistants had an ethical obligation.

“I’m somewhat amazed that they didn’t stand up and protect the patients,” said Dr. Robert Tamis, a 40-year gynecologist in the Valley who also performs abortions.

Tamis, who said medical assistants are always present during gynecological exams, said he doesn’t believe a law is needed.

“How do you legislate morality?” he said.

Arizona Sen. Sue Gerard, who heads the Senate Health Committee, agreed.

“You’re asking an untrained person to make a value judgment,” she said. “It’s one of the issues of where do you draw the line.”

Gerard said the larger issue is one of untrained medical professionals. That issue came up during another recent case involving an abortion doctor where a woman bled to death.

“I’m concerned about the type of people assisting in medical procedures overall,” she said.

Her advice to patients: Ask for the credentials of everyone administering health care.

“I don’t know what the answer is except to be better consumers,” she said.

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