Conference Coverage

Patients’ sexual problems: Be proactive, make discussions routine



If the goal of a clinical encounter is to identify issues that adversely affect health, well-being, and life satisfaction, open-ended questions on sexual problems are essential, according to an expert who provided tips during a session presented by Current Psychiatry and the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists about how to begin a productive dialogue.

Anita H. Clayton, MD, professor and chair of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville

Anita H. Clayton, MD

For identifying and treating the obstacles to sexual health, “the onus is on the provider,” said Anita H. Clayton, MD, chair of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

In a poll published more than 20 years ago, 91% of men and 84% of women reported that a satisfying sex life is important, while 90% agreed that sexual difficulties cause emotional problems, said Dr. Clayton, who sees no reason to think that those percentages have changed. Yet, patients are traditionally reluctant to raise their concerns about sexual issues to a physician.

In the same poll, about 50% of the respondents characterized themselves as “very concerned” that a clinician would simply dismiss a sexual complaint or that there would be no treatment. Of the other respondents, 40% were somewhat concerned. Dr. Clayton assumes that those numbers are still valid and that they provide the rationale for asking routinely about sexual health, she said at the virtual meeting, presented by MedscapeLive.

Raising sexual health issues

“The clinician has to initiate the discussion and make it part of the routine examination,” said Dr. Clayton, also a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the university. She indicated that unresolved sexual issues are a common and important but treatable problem, whether the underlying issue has a medical or psychological origin.

Yet, language is critical. Many physicians might have no difficulty discussing sexual problems, but patients often do. Dr. Clayton recommended developing strategies that might it easy if not seamless to elicit information about sexual health in the context of inquiring about other clinical issues.

“Use bridging statements,” Dr. Clayton suggested.

Bridging statements allow an easy transition into a discussion of sexual function from another clinical issue, Dr. Clayton said. As examples, she suggested moving to questions about sex from inquiries about conditions, such as diabetes, or medications, such as antidepressants, that are known to have an impact on sexual dysfunction.

Avoid yes-no questions.

To prompt a dialogue, Dr. Clayton advised against using yes-no questions that allow the patient to quickly dismiss the topic with a negative response. She tries to frame a question that requires a complete thought. In an inquiry addressed to a patient with diabetes, for example, she might first inform the patient that sexual issues are common with this disorder and then ask what types of sexual issues the patient is experiencing.

Once the topic is raised, a checklist approach is appropriate. Patients might be more or less willing to talk any one of the range of issues that influence sexual health, ranging from issues of desire and arousal to discomfort or pain. The door should be opened to a discussion of specific sexual organ function, such as ability to achieve an erection or adequate lubrication.


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