Blurred boundaries: sexuality and power in standardised patients’ negotiations of the physical examination

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Working with standardised or simulated patients (SPs) is now commonplace in Simulated Learning Environments. Embracing the fact that they are not a homogenous group, some literature suggests expansion of learning with SPs in health professional education by foregrounding their personal experiences. Intimate examination teaching, whether with or without the help of SPs, is protected by a particular degree of ceremony given the degree of potential vulnerability. However, other examinations may be equally intrusive for example the close proximity of an eye examination or a chest examination in a female patient. In this study, we looked at SPs’ experiences of boundary crossing in any examinations, sensitised by Foucault’s concept of the clinical gaze. We wished to problematise power relations that construct and subject SPs as clinical tools within simulation-based education.

We collected data from 22 SPs, through five focus groups. Analysis was an iterative process, using thematic analysis. Data collection and reflexive analysis continued iteratively until concepts were fully developed and all theoretical directions explored.

Students and SPs construct simulated teaching consultations by negotiating the unequal distribution of power between them. The SPs themselves discussed how they, perhaps unknowingly, acted in accordance with the discourse of the clinical gaze. However, SPs became disempowered when students deviated from the negotiated terms of consent and they used their agency to resist this. The SPs used strong sexual metaphors to express the subjugation they experienced, as discourses of sexuality and gender played out in the Simulated Learning Environment.

We demonstrate that power dynamics and the clinical gaze can have important consequences within the Simulated Learning Environment. Every physical examination can be potentially ‘intimate’ and can therefore be underpinned by discourses of sexuality and gendered undertones. In partnership with SPs, simulation-based education should create a teaching space that no longer fosters the discourse of the clinical gaze but facilitates students to learn to reflectively navigate, in the moment, the fine line between touching patients versus touching loved ones, and the blurred boundaries that exist in the gulf between sexual contact and benevolent touch.
Original languageEnglish
Article number11
Number of pages9
JournalAdvances in Simulation
Early online date26 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jun 2018


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