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Can you avoid physical medical exams?

In my time as a clinician, I have had to answer several questions and dispel umpteen anxieties from patients. Most anxieties are genuine, and so are the myriad of unending questions. But every now and again, something comes up that has no straight answers. Recently a young couple asked me why doctors are fond of physically examining patients, seemingly touching and prodding all conceivable places in attempts to make a diagnosis.

Is there no viable alternative? And can patients chose not to be physically touched by doctors? The answer is somewhere in between, a plain yes and no. Just talking with patients alone, without necessarily doing anything else, will explain the majority of symptoms. This in many cases will inform on remedial measures, and the matter ends there. Beyond that, some will need a physical exam, which usually is restricted to only the affected areas. Nobody really needs a full body exam at any one time. Others will need some tests to either strengthen or refute what the diagnosis appears to be.

Back to the physical exam. Doctors are trained to look, touch and feel, and in the process differentiate what’s normal from what is abnormal. That way, a doctor will easily make deductions and give you the right treatment.

Hence the physical exam skill must be maintained throughout a doctor’s career. But the physical exam can only go so far, and some bits will be missed out. In comes medical gadgets to supplement physical exams. But are such gadgets good enough to replace a doctor’s hands?

It is not unusual nowadays to go to a doctor’s office, have a chat, get some tests done and leave without the doctor laying a single hand on you. If prodding for something hiding somewhere inside is required, a scan will do better. If suffering from an externally visible ailment, tele-medicine comes in. You can beam real-time images to a specialist miles away without needing to be seen physically. A thorough analysis of symptoms, in combination with relevant tests will in most cases lead to the right diagnosis. And this,to some extent, supersedes physical exams.

There are varied opinions from doctors about the merits of doing a physical exam. One extreme, mostly the traditionalists, will argue for a physical each and every time. The other extreme are bent on modern medicine, where you only do the absolutely necessary, and leave the rest. Proponents of minimalist medical approaches will hardly touch you, and are quicker to use medical devices rather than their hands. Others fall in between, with varied combinations of the two approaches.

Your interest is getting cured. A physical is never mandatory, but can be helpful. If you want a hands-off approach, please say so upfront. Both you and your doctor can always find a middle ground, without either party getting aggrieved.

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In my time as a clinician, I have had to answer several questions and dispel umpteen anxieties from patients. Most anxieties are genuine, and so are the myriad of unending questions. But every now and again, something comes up that has no straight answers.Recently a young couple asked me why doctors are fond of physically examining patients, seemingly touching and prodding all conceivable places in attempts to make a diagnosis.Is there no viable alternative? And can patients chose not to be physically touched by doctors? The answer is somewhere in between, a plain yes and no.

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