Medical Council of Canada under fire for banning access to menstrual products for exam takers

The Medical Council of Canada says it’s reviewing its practices after being criticized online for prohibiting women from bringing tampons or menstrual pads into exam rooms while writing multi-hour tests.

Dr. Michelle Cohen, advocacy chairperson with Canadian Women in Medicine, said it’s “sexist and unfair” to confiscate feminine hygiene products from exam takers, or to require them to ask exam supervisors for access to them in the middle of a test.

“It’s just a completely disgusting overreach and outrageously invasive,” Cohen said in an interview from Brighton, Ont., where she works as a family doctor.

Cohen launched a petition calling for change, saying that making menstrual products available in washrooms doesn’t adequately solve the problem because exam writers are entitled to use the product of their choice.

While women now outnumber men in medical schools, she said gender parity has not worked its way up to leadership positions.

“When we look at medical leadership it hasn’t really changed the same way that movement in the profession has really changed, has really feminized. So a lot of those rules are still quite antiquated and reflect a sexist bias,” she said.

No specific ban

In a statement on Wednesday, the council said it does not have a policy on the use and access to menstrual products during exams, but personal items such as purses, bags and backpacks are not permitted in the exam area.

It says bags stored away on site can be accessed by staff on request, and test takers can also request to use the washroom and to have access to necessary personal items but it must be under supervision by exam administrators.

“We sincerely regret any frustration that this has caused,” the statement said.    

Yes, we have to balance exam integrity, but at the end of the day they’re going to have to draw the line somewhere and we’re going to have to respect personal autonomy in women making their own health decisions. – Dr. Alana Fleet, Resident Doctors of Canada

“A group is being established to review current practices and we look forward to collaborating with learners to identify opportunities for improvement in these practices moving forward.”

Dr. Alana Fleet, who is on the executive of the Resident Doctors of Canada (RDC), said she took an exam with the medical council last weekend in Vancouver. Rules about what you can bring into the exam room are outlined on the medical council’s website.

“Essentially you are to have a lab coat, reflex hammer, stethoscope and identification. Any other valuables that you bring, those are deemed unacceptable and placed in itemized bags and stored at the side,” Fleet said.

RDC, which represents about 10,000 physicians, has been working with the medical council to change its policy, she said.

In the past, she said the council required test-takers to pre-register and declare health accommodations. That was problematic for unpredictable things like menstruation, she said, and the policy was eliminated for this year’s exams.

It’s a step in the right direction but it would be better if women could just bring the products of their choice without asking permission to access them, she said.

“Yes, we have to balance exam integrity, but at the end of the day they’re going to have to draw the line somewhere and we’re going to have to respect personal autonomy in women making their own health decisions. That’s ultimately what I’d like to see,” she said.



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