Clinical Review

How do you break the ice with patients to ask about their sexual health?

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A patient may skip talking about sexual function out of embarrassment, and a clinician out of concern for the patient’s feelings. We may be overlooking women in need of treatment when we have the tools we need to assess and treat patients’ sexual dysfunction.

In this Article

  • Conversation icebreakers
  • The sexual status examination
  • When to refer



CASE Patient may benefit from treatment for dyspareuniaA 54-year-old woman has been in your care for more than 15 years. Three years ago, at her well-woman examination, she was not yet having symptoms of menopause. Now, during her current examination, she reports hot flashes, which she says are not bothersome. In passing, she also says, “I don’t want to take hormone therapy,” but then is not overly conversational or responsive to your questions. She does mention having had 3 urinary tract infections over the past 8 months. On physical examination, you note mildly atrophied vaginal tissue.

Your patient does not bring up any sexual concerns, and so far you have not directly asked about sexual health. However, the time remaining in this visit is limited, and your patient, whose daughter is sitting in the waiting area, seems anxious to finish and leave. Still, you want to broach the subject of your patient’s sexual health. What are your best options?

We learned a lot about women’s perceptions regarding their sexual health in the 2008 Prevalence of Female Sexual Problems Associated with Distress and Determinants of Treatment Seeking study (PRESIDE). Approximately 43% of 31,581 questionnaire respondents reported dysfunction in sexual desire, arousal, or orgasm.1 Results also showed that 11.5% of the respondents with any of these types of female sexual dysfunction (FSD) were distressed about it. For clinicians, knowing who these women are is key in recognizing and treating FSD.

Important to the opening case, in PRESIDE, Shifren and colleagues found that women in their midlife years (aged 45 to 64) had the highest rate of any distressing sexual problem: 14.8%. Younger women (aged 18 to 44 years) had a rate of 10.8%; older women (aged 65 years or older) had a rate of 8.9%.1

The most prevalent FSD was hypoactive sexual desire disorder,1 which in 2013 was renamed sexual interest and arousal disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.2 As with any distressing FSD, reports of being distressed about low sexual desire were highest for midlife women (12.3%) relative to younger (8.9%) and older (7.4%) women.1

Unfortunately, decreased desire can have a ripple effect that goes well beyond a patient’s sexual health. A less-than-satisfying sex life can have a significant negative impact on self-image, possibly leading to depression or overall mood instability, which in turn can put undue strain on personal relationships.1,3 A patient’s entire quality of life can be affected negatively.

With so much at stake, it is important for physicians to take a more active role in addressing the sexual health of their patients. Emphasizing wellness can help reduce the stigma of sexual dysfunction, break the silence, and open up patient–physician communication.4 There is also much to be gained by helping patients realize that having positive and respectful relationships is protective for health, including sexual health.4 Likewise, patients benefit from acknowledging that sexual health is an element of overall health and contributes to it.4

Toward these ends, more discussion with patients is needed. According to a 2008 national study, although 63% of US ObGyns surveyed indicated that they routinely asked their patients about sexual activity, only 40% asked about sexual problems, and only 29% asked patients if their sex lives were satisfying.5

Without communication, information is missed, and clinicians easily can overlook their patients’ sexual dysfunction and need for intervention. For midlife women, who are disproportionately affected by dysfunction relative to younger and older women, and for whom the rate of menopausal symptoms increases over the transition years, the results of going undiagnosed and untreated can be especially troubling. As reported in one study, for example, the rate of bothersome vulvovaginal atrophy, which can be a source of sexual dysfunction, increased from less than 5% at premenopause to almost 50% at 3 years postmenopause.6 What is standing in our way, however, and how can we overcome the hurdles to an open-door approach and meaningful conversation?

Obstacles to taking a sexual historyInitiating a sexual history can be like opening Pandora’s box. How do clinicians deal with the problems that come out? Some clinicians worry about embarrassing a patient with the first few questions about sexual health. Male gynecologists may feel awkward asking a patient about sex—particularly an older, midlife patient. The problem with not starting the conversation is that the midlife patient is often the one in the most distress, and the one most in need of treatment. Only by having the sexual health discussion can clinicians identify any issues and begin to address them.


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