Thoughts for Thursday

Part 4: Talking to Older Patients About Sex and STIs



Having established that there is a documented increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among older Americans, and furthermore recognizing that a contributing factor to this trend may be communication gaps between patients and their health care providers, I now want to address the “What do we do about it?” aspect of our discussion. As clinicians, we know that the core focus around infectious diseases of any kind is prevention.

There are 3 types of prevention, as noted by Fos and Fine in Introduction to Public Health, all of which fit into our current topic: primary (eliminating risk factors), secondary (early detection), and tertiary (eliminating or moderating disability associated with advanced disease).1 The following recommendations fall into at least one of these categories.

1. All clinicians need to be involved in educating older Americans about the risks for STIs. Providers should routinely ask seniors if they are sexually active and should be prepared to recommend appropriate screening and education resources. Essentially, older adults should be getting the same basic “safe sex” education that younger people receive: learning about STIs, from recognizing the signs to understanding how STIs complicate other chronic medical conditions.2,3

2. Seniors also need education on the importance—and proper use—of condoms. Furthermore, we should go a step further and ensure that free condoms are distributed in places where seniors live and congregate. People older than 60 report the lowest condom use of any population.2,3

3. Information on STI detection and treatment options needs to be well publicized. For example, Medicare provides free STI screenings and low-cost treatments. We need to make sure our older patients are aware of this benefit and encourage them to make use of it.

4. Older Americans should be screened for STIs, regardless of age, per CDC guidelines. Seniors should get annual testing if they have new sexual partners—which means they must be asked the difficult questions.

And that’s the crux of the issue: Family members and clinicians may find it uncomfortable to have this conversation with Grandpa or Grandma. But there should be a dialogue to ensure they are aware of their risk for STIs, as well as how to prevent them.3 A well-known NP colleague reminded me of the importance of emphasizing to our older patients that anything discussed within the encounter is confidential and will not be disclosed without their permission. She starts off her conversations with patients by saying, “A lot of people your age experience …” or “Please don’t be insulted if I ask you about …” or “Is it OK if I ask you a few very personal questions?”

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