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3 ways medical professionals can approach sexual health issues sensitively


Over the past few years, issues on sexual and reproductive health have become much less of a taboo than they once were, with many people actively trying to encourage more open conversation on these topics. However, just because the issue itself has become more widely acknowledged, doesn’t mean that the topic of sexual health is any less sensitive, especially to patients who are putting their trust into medical professionals.

This is why, as a nurse or doctor, it is essential that you learn how to approach these topics in a caring, non-judgemental way. Bedside manner has always been one of the most key (and often most overlooked) elements of being in a healthcare profession, and I think it’s time to stop and consider whether you have been talking to your patients appropriately.

Obviously, this is not an attack on people working in healthcare – we appreciate the work you do for us, but, as the times change so does the way we approach patients, and so here are some tips for bringing up sexual health in a more sensitive way.

1. Let Patients Bring it up on Their Own

The first suggestion is quite an obvious one, I’ll admit since one of the main reasons a doctor or nurse will have to talk about sexual or reproductive health in the first place is if a patient has brought it up to them. Although, you’d be surprised at how often people in your general practice can make assumptions about sexual health, or flat out ask very sensitive questions without warning.

Clearly, if you think that something is wrong with your patient, you want to ask them about it so that you can make a proper diagnosis and help them. This isn’t unreasonable, but when a patient comes to talk about a sensitive issue, they can easily feel ambushed by blunt quickfire questions. Often this frank approach to communication only stems from the eagerness to diagnose and fix problems, but sometimes it’s best to put that aside and consider the patient’s feelings, especially if they are particularly young.

The best way to open the conversation about sexual health with your patient is to try and subtly guide the discussion towards the topic, without being too invasive. A good way to do this is to ask vague questions, for example if they state any symptoms, ask about “personal habits,” which is ambiguous enough to get them talking about the way they live their life – diet, exercise, and eventually sexual health.

2. Refer Them to a Specialist

For both doctors and nurses, making referrals can be a lot of hassle, and a lot of paperwork as well, but in some cases, this is the best option for your patient when it comes to sexual or reproductive health. No matter the issue, a specialist will always be more adept at solving certain issues, since they have more training and experience than most nurses or doctors in their specific area.

Of course, not every healthcare worker is qualified to make a referral, for example, many nurses. Some nurses due to this, have gone through an online FNP program, allowing them to gain the qualification needed to do referrals for their patients. In other cases, nurses that aren’t qualified could easily suggest that the patient makes an appointment with a doctor in order to get a referral – I know this seems like a lot of hassle for the patient, but hopefully they will appreciate the fact that you are working hard to make sure they get the care they need.

Making a referral will not only ensure that your patient is in safe hands, but it will also make them feel like their worries and queries are being taken more seriously. Because of this, patients are more likely to trust you in the future, and therefore will be more open to talking about sensitive subjects such as their own sexual health.

3. Ask For Preferences

Finally, it is really important for doctors or nurses to ask patients if they feel comfortable, and encourage them to voice their worries. Even though you may be their general doctor and so are the most knowledgeable about their medical history, a patient may not always feel comfortable with you, especially talking about sexual health. A primary example of this, is patients requesting a male or female doctor.

I know that gender clearly doesn’t have any correlation to quality of medical care provided, and so shouldn’t be an issue, but the truth of the matter is that you will find patients that will feel uncomfortable with a male/female doctor in certain situations, and it’s within your duty of care to make sure that patients don’t feel this way.

Although the most common, this is not the only preference patients might have when talking about something as sensitive as sexual health. Some may request to have a friend, partner or parent sit in on their appointment for support, and if they look uncomfortable, maybe making that suggestion could put the patient at ease.