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Empowering patients to discuss sexual health

I’m sure you can picture it. You’re sitting in an exam room wearing a paper gown, waiting for your health care provider to walk in the room. There are a few colorful posters on the wall about flu season, health screenings, and a discount prescription program available to patients. But all you can think about is the conversation you’re about to have. Will they bring it up? Will you ask? Does it feel awkward, challenging, or shameful to think about? Should you use nicknames for your body parts so it’s not as weird to talk about your symptoms? Let’s be honest. Talking about your sexual health with your clinician can feel difficult to bring up, but it is important no matter who you are.

There is a known gap in medical training when it comes to sexual medicine education, especially in female sexual medicine. There are also stigmas associated with the topics of female sexual health and reproductive health. In society, we’ve been taught from a young age to tip-toe around these topics and to keep any conversation about our “private parts” well … private. And further, the expectations to keep these parts of our lives hidden transcend cultural, religious, and socioeconomic lines. Sexual health is a critical aspect of overall health and well-being that is often overlooked during a patient visit, in the classroom setting, and in medical education. The gap in knowledge between the general public and health care providers continues to perpetuate the negative stigmas attached to female sexual health. Unfortunately, current medical students are still not receiving adequate training to broach topics around the sexual function and experiences of females.

We are writing this letter to you as a group of medical students who have banded together to demand more from the institutions training us so we can become better clinicians for you—our future patients. We want to help create a future in which our patients feel empowered to bring up sexual health concerns and encourage clinicians to normalize these discussions. But how can we do this? How have we done this so far?

We, as medical students, have collaborated to review the medical school clerkship curricula of the seven Chicago-area medical schools for the inclusion of information on female sexual medicine. These findings have been summarized in multiple abstracts, podium presentations, and a published manuscript. Additionally, we have created discussions and lectures, each with a guest expert, for students to learn, exchange ideas, and advocate and collaborate with academic communities to normalize discussing female sexual medicine. We hope that the work we have done and continue to do will encourage and empower you to talk about your body.

There is no such thing as a “stupid question” when it comes to your body. There is no symptom that is “too embarrassing” – your health care providers should have been trained to put you as the patient first, which includes addressing every one of your concerns about your sexual health. If you find that your provider isn’t matching this, reach out to one who will.

You know your body best, and we want to help you continue giving it the best care it deserves. We hear you, we see you, and your concerns matter to us.

Sri Contractor, Suvitha Viswanathan, Olivia Negris, Jen Romanello, and Monica Meyers are medical students.

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