Genital Skin Exams in Girls: Advice From
an Expert

Randy Dotinga

May 10, 2021

Genital skin exams in girls must be conducted with special care and alertness for signs of abuse, a dermatologist told colleagues at the American Academy of Dermatology Virtual Meeting Experience.

Dr Kalyani Marathe

"One in four adult women report being childhood victims of sexual abuse, which is just a staggering number. This is an opportunity for us to identify these patients early and give them the terminology to be able to report what is happening to them," said pediatric dermatologist Kalyani Marathe, MD, MPH, director of the division of dermatology at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. "We also have the chance to give them a sense of agency over their bodies."

Marathe offered the following recommendations when performing a genital skin exam:

  • Make sure a "chaperone" is present. "Chaperones are a must when you're examining children and teens," she said. "Ask whom they prefer. For prepubertal children, you're going to usually use the parent who's there with them. If the parent is their father, they might ask him to step behind the curtain, in which case you can bring over your nurse or medical assistant." Teens may ask either parent to step out of the room, she said. In that case, a nurse, medical assistant, resident, or trainee can fill in. "If you have male residents or trainees with you and the patient really does not want to be examined by a male, honor their request. Do not force them."

  • Explain why the exam is being performed. Make sure the patient understands why she is being seen, Marathe advised. For example, say something like "your pediatrician told us that you have an itchy area" or "your mom told us that there's some loss of color in that area, that you're having a problem there." She added that it's helpful to explain the type of doctor you are, with a comment such as the following: "We're examining you because we're doctors who specialize in skin....We want to help you feel better and make sure that your skin heals and is healthy."

  • Ask both the child and the parent for permission to perform the exam. While this may seem trivial, "it's very, very important in setting the right tone for the encounter," she said. "If the child says yes, we turn to the mom and say: 'Mom, is it okay for us to do this exam today?' You can see visible relief on the part of the parent, and as the parent relaxes, the child relaxes. Just saying those few things really makes the encounter so much smoother." However, "if they say no, you have to honor the response. ... You say: 'Okay, we're not going to do the exam today," and see the patient in a few weeks. If it's urgent, an exam under anesthesia may be an option, she added.

  • Talk to the child about the terms they use for private parts. It can be helpful to ask: "Do you have any terms for your private area?" According to Marathe, "this is a good chance to educate them on the terms vulva and vagina since they may be using other terminology. Making sure that they have the correct terms will actually help patients identify and report abuse earlier." Marathe recalled that a colleague had a patient who'd been calling her private area "pound cake" and had been "reporting to her teacher that someone had been touching her 'pound cake.' Her teacher did not know what she meant by that, and this led to a great delay in her childhood abuse being reported."

  • Talk about what will happen during the exam. "I like to show them any instruments that we're going to be using," Marathe said. "If we're using a flashlight, for example, I like to show them a picture [of a flashlight] or show them that flashlight. If we're using a camera to do digital photography, show them that. If we're going to be using a Q-tip or a swab to demonstrate anything or to take a culture, I like to show them that beforehand to make sure that they know what we're doing." In regard to photography, "make sure the parent and child know where the photos are going to go, who's going to see them, what are they going to be used for. If they're going to be used for educational purposes, make sure they have given explicit permission for that and they know they'll be deidentified."

  • Make it clear that the exam won't be painful. It's important to put both the patient and the parent at ease on this front, Marathe said. "A lot of parents are concerned that we're going to do a speculum exam in their prepubertal child. So make sure that it's clarified ahead of time that we're not going to be doing a speculum exam."

Commenting on this topic, Tor Shwayder, MD, a pediatric dermatologist at Henry Ford Health System, Detroit, urged colleagues to take action if they feel suspicious about a possible sign of child abuse, even if they're far from certain that anything is wrong. "Don't ignore those feelings in the back of the brain," he said in an interview.

Most states have child-abuse hotlines for medical professionals, and major hospitals will have child-abuse teams, Shwayder said. He urged dermatologists to take advantage of these resources when appropriate. "The professionals on the other side of the 800 number or at the hospital will help you. You don't have to decide immediately whether this is child abuse. You just need to have a suspicion."

Marathe and Shwayder report no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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