How Patient Modesty Affects Medical Care

Modesty in a medical setting refers to a person’s shyness or fear of exposing their body to someone else. There are many reasons some people feel inhibited about revealing their bodies to healthcare providers, including:

  • Embarrassment
  • Fear of being judged
  • Past medical or sexual trauma
  • Religious or cultural beliefs

This article explains modesty and tips for maintaining dignity in healthcare.

What Is Modesty in Healthcare?

Controlling when, if, and how you expose your body can influence your healthcare experience and sense of dignity.

Dignity has four components, all of which impact modesty. They include:

  • Respect: People need privacy, confidentiality, and respect for their beliefs.
  • Autonomy: People need choices and the ability to make decisions.
  • Empowerment: People need to feel important and modest.
  • Communication: People need to feel heard and be offered enough space to ask questions and understand information.

Dignity regarding modesty may involve a healthcare provider leaving the room while the patient changes. Or it could mean the patient keeping all body parts covered except those that the provider is actively examining.

In addition, offering options about when to change and if or how much a person is comfortable exposing are also ways to honor someone’s dignity.

Shy patient waiting in hospital
ERproductions Ltd / Blend Images / Getty Images


The need for modesty isn’t innate. Instead, modesty is a set of rules people learn through their culture and other contexts.

Before cultural modesty standards, people covered their bodies to keep themselves warm or to protect genitalia. However, because of modesty standards, people use clothing to keep certain parts of their bodies hidden, especially body parts considered sexual, like genitals and breasts.

In addition, people maintain modesty to avoid experiencing body shaming. For example, if someone is insecure about their body, they may wear certain clothing to deflect judgment.

Modesty’s Impact on Health

In some cultures, modesty is a barrier to some kinds of healthcare services, like mammograms. In addition, it can impact whether a person chooses to breastfeed or if they feel comfortable breastfeeding in public.

Medical Significance

Most people adopt the modesty standards of their culture to some extent. Often, people can separate their typical need for modesty when they need medical care.

Some common instances where people set aside modesty in exchange for medical care include:

  • Pregnant people may sometimes need to expose their abdomen and genitals to receive prenatal care and give birth.
  • People must expose their breasts to get mammograms to screen for breast cancer.
  • People with testicles may need to expose their genitals to allow their healthcare provider to check for hernias or screen for prostate cancer.

In each case, body embarrassment is set aside for the bigger goal of diagnosing and caring for a person’s body. However, sometimes a person’s past trauma or other influences make the hurdle of modesty in a medical setting too tricky. As a result, some people avoid getting medical care.

According to a U.S. survey on avoiding necessary medical care, nearly one-third of respondents said they avoided going to the doctor. People who avoided care included those with significant health conditions and those who were experiencing symptoms.


Avoiding medical care is prevalent. Sometimes avoidance of necessary care is related to modesty.

The top reasons for avoiding medical care include:

  • Lack of trust in doctors
  • Symptoms did not seem severe
  • Denial
  • Worry
  • Embarrassment
  • Practical barriers like transportation
  • Prior negative experience

Gender Differences

A 2019 survey by the Cleveland Clinic found that only half of adult men consider getting their annual checkups. What’s more, 20% of men say they have not been completely honest with their doctor. Reasons included:

  • Embarrassment (possibly related to modesty)
  • Not wanting to be told to change their lifestyle
  • Fear of a diagnosis

By contrast, a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 93% of women saw a doctor in the last two years, and 73% saw their doctor for a general checkup.

Being aware of these barriers can help healthcare providers create protocols and policies that respect a person’s dignity during medical visits.

For transgender individuals, modesty in medical settings is especially important for a sense of safety and comfort. Unfortunately, transgender people too often experience discrimination when seeking medical care. And 23% do not seek necessary care.

Trauma-Informed Care

Not every healthcare provider has training in trauma-informed care. But if your concern about modesty in a medical setting is rooted in past trauma, it may be worth seeking out a provider who is.

Trauma-informed care is an approach that recognizes how past trauma can affect a person’s experiences in a medical setting. Trauma-informed healthcare providers can then use specific strategies to avoid re-traumatization.

For example, these practices can help a person who has difficulty with modesty in a medical setting.

Trauma-informed care has five basic principles:

  • Acknowledge the trauma.
  • Help a person feel safe.
  • Offer choice, control, and collaboration.
  • Highlight a person’s strengths and skills.
  • Be sensitive to a person’s culture, race, gender, and sexual orientation.

Small Moves Can Help

Since modesty protects a person’s dignity and sense of safety, healthcare providers can apply trauma-informed practices to offer a person a sense of control and security around their modesty. This may include:

  • Offering privacy to change clothes
  • Offering a choice to stay in one’s clothes
  • Asking permission before touching
  • Exposing only the examined area

Steps Healthcare Providers Can Take

While healthcare providers are often pressed for time, they can do some proactive things to make their patients feel safe and respected. Look for healthcare providers who do the following:

  • Initiate conversations about comfort
  • Take time to listen to your concerns and develop a plan to help you feel safe
  • Explain the process and obtain consent before touching
  • Leave time for questions

Overcoming Modesty in a Medical Setting

If you have difficulty with modesty in a medical setting, just getting to the doctor’s office can be a big hurdle. There are ways to make your visit more comfortable, such as:

  • Make a list: Before your appointment, write down what you want to address with your doctor. This list can help you feel more organized and less worried about forgetting something.
  • Honestly share worries or concerns: Tell your doctor about any health issues you are worried about, including any procedures that might take place during your visit.
  • Ask questions: If you’re worried about modesty, ask questions about what you should expect. Ask, “How much clothing will I need to remove?” Or make a request like, “Would it be OK if I got dressed before we talk further?” Getting answers to your questions will help you feel as though you have more control over the situation.

If your healthcare provider is dismissive or does not respect your need for privacy or modesty, it may be time to seek a new healthcare provider.


Modesty in a medical setting refers to a person’s shyness about disrobing for medical exams or procedures. Plenty of people feel uncomfortable during healthcare appointments.

Fortunately, there are things healthcare providers and patients can do to make the experience more comfortable. For example, talking about concerns, setting expectations, and obtaining consent are all things that can make a person feel more in control in a vulnerable situation.

A Word From Verywell

Find a respectful healthcare provider who takes the time to listen and understand your concerns. Then share your concerns and ask questions about what you can expect during a healthcare appointment. As you become more comfortable with your provider, you may find that modesty becomes less of an issue.

If your concerns about modesty are debilitating, you may have a phobia. For example, the fear of doctors is called “iatrophobia.” The fear of being naked is called “gymnophobia.” Phobias are treatable, so if your worries keep you from seeking necessary medical care, seek help from a mental health professional.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic survey: men will do almost anything to avoid going to the doctor.

  5. Kaiser Family Foundation. Women’s health care utilization and costs: findings from the 2020 KFF Women’s Health Survey.

  6. National Center for Transgender Equality. Executive summary of the report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.

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  8. National Council for Mental Wellbeing. Fostering resilience and recovery: a change package.

By Trisha Torrey
 Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.