By Latisha Murray, MD
With chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis infection rates higher than ever, the need for thorough patient-provider communication is all the more vital. According to the CDC, U.S. health departments have reported 1.8 million cases of chlamydia, 616,392 cases of gonorrhea, and 129,813 cases of syphilis, a more than 20 percent increase in cases since 2015. Even more concerning, due to the high rate of asymptomatic cases, it is likely that these statistics fall short of recording the actual number of infections in the U.S.
So how can we put an end to the escalating numbers, especially for patients who don’t manifest symptoms? It starts with having open and productive conversations with our patients. Like many health care conversations, patients often feel a degree of shame, insecurity, and discomfort when discussing topics relating to sexual health. It’s impossible to treat patients if they don’t feel comfortable being honest with us.
One way to make communication easier is to keep the conversation focused on the medicine. Simply listing the facts of the matter can decrease patient discomfort. Talk to your patient about the increased rates of STIs in your area and inform them that many cases are asymptomatic. Explain the dangers of an undiagnosed STD and how it could help loved ones to receive a screening.
Make sure your patient understands this is standard protocol for all who are sexually active. Use “we” language rather than “you” language. For example, “We all risk contracting an STD if sexually active.” Some patients may feel singled out in conversations like these and reinforcing the idea that sexual screenings are something we recommend for all sexually active patients can be very reassuring. Let them know they are not alone.
Lastly, remember to be compassionate and empathetic. There is no small degree of stigma surrounding STDs and one of the main ways we can help curtail feelings of embarrassment for patients is to reassure them that there is nothing for which they should feel ashamed. Make sure to maintain eye contact and try not to react overtly to any information the patient might share. Most importantly, assess any biases or assumptions (regarding age, appearance, marital status, sexual orientation, etc.) you may have regarding a patient or sexual health and ensure that they don’t affect your communication.
Sexual health is an essential part of our overall wellness. By having these discussions with patients, we work to remove the stigma and normalize the conversation.
Dr. Latisha Murray is Board certified in Family Medicine by the American Board of Family Medicine and a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians. She is a primary care physician with TPMG Grafton Family Medicine in Yorktown. Mytpmg.com