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What to expect from a physical examination by your doctor

8-minute read

Key facts

  • During a physical examination, a doctor may need to touch or look at all or part of your body to diagnose an injury or health condition.
  • The doctor might measure your heart rate, blood pressure, height and weight, look in your throat or ears with a torch, or listen to your heart or lungs with a stethoscope.
  • Sometimes you might need to have an examination of your breasts, genital area or rectum.
  • Your doctor must get your consent to examine you, give you privacy to undress and respect your dignity by only exposing areas that need to be examined.
  • You can ask to see another doctor for an examination, or to have someone else you trust in the room (a chaperone) with you during the examination.

What is a physical examination?

A physical examination is when a doctor checks all or part of your body to find out more about your general health, or to diagnose an injury or health condition.

When might you need an examination by a doctor?

You might need a doctor’s examination if you:

You can also have a general check-up to help you stay healthy.

You can have your examination in the doctor's clinic, in a hospital or healthcare facility or via a telehealth consultation.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

What might happen during an examination?

During a physical examination, the doctor will need to see, touch, tap or press on parts of your body, to understand what is causing your symptoms.

They may:

  • listen to your heart, lungs or abdomen with a stethoscope
  • use a torch to look at your eyes, inside your ears or mouth
  • measure your height, weight or waist circumference

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

Intimate examinations

Sometimes a doctor may need to do an internal or intimate examination.

For females, this might include:

  • an examination of your pelvis, when the doctor uses gloved fingers to feel inside your vagina while pressing on your abdomen with the other hand
  • a breast examination
  • a rectal examination, when the doctor inserts a gloved finger into your rectum (back passage) to check for some bowel problems

Read more on health checks for females.

For males, this might include:

  • an examination of your penis or testes
  • a rectal examination, when the doctor inserts a gloved finger into your rectum to check for some bowel problems or to examine your prostate

Read more on health checks for males.

What must your doctor do before examining you?

Before examining you or your child, the doctor needs to get your consent. That means you agree for them to do the examination.

They should explain:

  • why you need this examination
  • what parts of your body need to be examined
  • if you will need to undress
  • what will happen during the examination

They should give you a chance to ask questions.

The doctor should:

  • provide a screen or a cubicle so you can undress in private
  • 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

What are your rights as a patient?

As a patients, you have the right to:

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

You have the right to refuse to be examined.

Tell your doctor if you would prefer to be examined by another doctor. For example, if you would feel more comfortable if a female doctor does a pelvic examination, you can ask to see one.

You can also ask to have a friend or family member with you at the examination.

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 in the room with you during the examination.

If the doctor wants someone else in the room, including a chaperone or a medical student, they need your permission.

You have the right to request or refuse having another person in the room with you during the examination.

Inappropriate behaviour

Inappropriate behaviour by a doctor might include:

  • touching of a sexual nature
  • making comments about your body that are not necessary for your health care
  • examining or touching you without your consent
  • examining you when there is no medical reason to do so

If you have experienced inappropriate behaviour, you can report it through your state or territory’s health complaints organisation.

Remember, you should feel safe and comfortable when seeing a doctor.

Finding the right doctor

It is important that you feel you can trust your doctors and communicate well with them. To be sure you receive the best healthcare, you will need to see someone you can talk to, who listens and who takes you seriously.

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

To find a health professional or after-hours medical service, use the healthdirect Service Finder tool.

Resources and support

Visit the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) to find a list of registered doctors or to report a concern about a doctor.

See the Australian Charter of Healthcare Rights to find out what you can expect as a patient.

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

Last reviewed: August 2023

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