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Learning the pelvic exam with Project Prepare

SMS (“Stanford Medical School”) Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

This past Friday, half my class crowded into a small room in the basement of the Li Ka Shing Center. When we walked in, we saw our names written on the board, under one of the following headings: “Male Pelvic Exam,” “Female Pelvic Exam,” and “Female Breast Exam.”

It felt like a safe space to make mistakes, ask questions, and fumble a little bit – without feeling like I was in over my head

For many of us, this was our first session of Project Prepare – a 3-session, 8-hour course designed to teach medical students how to provide supportive care for patients in the area of sexual health. (The history of the program is included in this article.) The teachers in Project Prepare take the dual role of patient and educator, using their own bodies to help students learn how to perform pelvic and breast exams.

This was my first day of the course, and I was scheduled to do the female pelvic exam session with a patient-educator whom I’ll call Stacie. I had heard from other classmates who had already done this session that it was “intense” and that it took some time to emotionally recover afterwards. I’d heard from others that it was “incredible;" one classmate even said it made her to want to be a Project Prepare patient-educator herself. The many mixed messages rolled together in my mind and distilled into a single overwhelming sense of anxiety.

But Stacie made everything so easy. She didn’t beat around the bush about how awkward or uncomfortable the experience could be. The first thing she asked us was, “What have you heard about Project Prepare?” and when I said I’d heard it was “intense,” she responded, “Why do you think that is?” In doing so, she set the tone for the rest of the afternoon: gentle, filled with open-ended questions and non-judgmental responses.

Over the next three hours, Stacie guided a fellow classmate and me through the exam techniques and word choice that accompany the 5-part female pelvic exam. She pointed out nuances that would never have otherwise crossed my mind, like how saying “that’s perfect” and “great” are fine in other parts of a medical interview or exam but painfully awkward and even inappropriate in the context of a pelvic exam.

After the session, I looked up Project Prepare, curious as to how many medical schools invite the team to their campuses. I was surprised to see that only Stanford, Touro University College of Osteopathic Medicine (both in CA and NV), Kaiser, and UCSF are on Project Prepare’s list of clientele. Though I still have two sessions left, it is so clear to me that Project Prepare is a unique, effective way of teaching students the pelvic and breast exams. As a medical student, the idea of doing these delicate exams for the first time on a real patient (one who is not simultaneously a trained educator) is terrifying. I had this experience last year, at Stanford’s Arbor Free Clinic, where I performed my first pap smear, with the guidance of an attending physician. I recall how scared I felt that I might hurt my patient and somehow “mess up.” In contrast, my experience with Project Prepare felt like a safe space to make mistakes, ask questions, and fumble a little bit – without feeling like I was in over my head.

This week, I have two more sessions with the Project Prepare teaching team, and this time, my feelings leading up to the sessions are colored with excitement rather than anxiety. To the Project Prepare patient-educators: Thank you so much for sharing your time, your knowledge, and most of all, your bodies, with us, as we take this journey from classroom to clinic. Our medical school experience feels more complete because of you.

Hamsika Chandrasekar is a second-year student at Stanford’s medical school. She has an interest in medical education and pediatrics.

Previously: Reality Check: When it stopped feeling like just another day in medical school

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