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Physical examination by a doctor

3-minute read

During a physical examination, a doctor examines either all or part of your body to find out more about your general health or to diagnose an injury, illness or condition.

When might you need an examination by a doctor?

There are many situations when you might need to be examined by a doctor. These include if you have a cough, sore throat, fevervomiting, pain, diarrhoea, breathing difficulties, skin rashes or lumps, eye problems, earache, broken bones, injuries, illness or if you are pregnant.

You can be examined in the doctor’s surgery, in a clinic or hospital, or at a healthcare facility.

What happens during an examination?

During a physical examination, the doctor will need to see, touch, tap or prod parts of your body in order to understand what is wrong. They may listen to your heart, lungs or abdomen with a stethoscope or they may use other instruments.

As part of the examination the doctor may check your vital signs, including your:

  • temperature
  • heart rate
  • blood pressure
  • breathing rate

They may need to do an internal or intimate examination, such as:

  • an oral examination, when the doctor depresses your tongue and looks and feels inside your mouth
  • a pelvic examination, when the doctor uses gloved fingers to feel inside your vagina, while pressing on your abdomen with the other hand
  • a prostate examination, when the doctor inserts a gloved finger into your rectum (back passage)

What must the doctor do before examining you?

Before doing a physical examination of your body or that of your child, the doctor needs to get your consent.

They should explain:

  • why the examination is needed
  • what parts of your body need to be examined
  • what will happen during the examination

You should be given a chance to ask questions.

The doctor will tell you if you or your child needs to take off some or all of their clothes for the examination.

The doctor should:

  • provide a screen or a cubicle so you can undress privately
  • turn away or leave the room while you dress and undress
  • provide a gown, sheet or suitable cover during the examination
  • not expose more of your body than necessary
  • always wear gloves when doing an internal examination

You can refuse to be examined, or you can ask to see another doctor. For example, if you would feel more comfortable if a female doctor does a pelvic examination, you should ask to see one. You can also ask to have a friend or family member present at the examination.

Your rights as a patient

Patients have the right to:

  • feel safe when seeing a doctor
  • be shown respect, and treated with dignity and consideration
  • be informed clearly about services, treatment options and costs
  • be included in decisions
  • have personal information kept private and confidential

Chaperones or observers

Most examinations are done in private. However, you or the doctor can ask for another person, called a chaperone or observer, to be present during the examination. If the doctor wants someone else in the room, including a chaperone or a medical student, they need your permission.

Inappropriate behaviour

If you’d like to report inappropriate behaviour, such as touching of a sexual nature, visit the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency website and go to the ‘Make a complaint’ page. Remember, you should be able to feel safe and comfortable when seeing a doctor.

Finding the right doctor

It is important that you trust your doctors and have a good rapport with them. To ensure you receive the best healthcare, you will need to see someone you can talk to, who listens and who takes you seriously.

Ask friends, colleagues or allied health professionals for recommendations. You can read more here about finding the right doctor.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2019

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