If there's one place you should feel comfortable talking about sex, it's probably your OB-GYN's office. After all, your doctor theoretically chats with other patients about all kinds of awkward topics all day long. Except that she or he doesn't, according to a recent study. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that OB-GYNS actually don't engage their patients in conversations about sex as often as women might hope -- and need.
The researchers surveyed over 1,100 OB-GYNs to find out how they communicate with patients. The study, which was published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, found that while two thirds of the doctors ask their patients how sexually active they are, only 40 percent inquire about sexual problems or dysfunction. Just 28 percent routinely ask about sexual orientation, an area the researchers suggested should be researched further. (If doctors assume heterosexuality, they might alienate lesbian or bisexual patients or end up misinterpreting symptoms or misdiagnosing patients.) On top of that, only 29 percent of doctors make a habit of asking patients whether their sex life is satisfying.
"Sexuality is a key component of a woman's physical and psychological health," Stacy Tessler Lindau, an associate professor University of Chicago Medicine and the study's lead author, said in a press release. "Obviously, OB-GYNs are well positioned among all physicians to address female sexual concerns. Simply asking a patient if she's sexually active does not tell us whether she has good sexual function or changes in her sexual function that could indicate underlying problems."
And yet, the number of women who suffer from sex-related issues is significant: A 2010 of 31,000 women ages 18 and older found that 43 percent had some sort of sexual problem. A 2006 study showed that low libido affects 38 percent of women and another from 2011 showed 25 percent of women reported having experienced pain during intercourse.
But the prevalence of sexual concerns doesn't coincide with women feeling comfortable asking their doctors about those issues: In the study on pain during intercourse, only two percent of women sought help from their physicians.
"Many women are suffering in silence," Lindau said. "Patients are often reluctant to bring up sexual difficulties because of fear the physician will be embarrassed or will dismiss their concerns. Doctors should be taking the lead. Sexual history-taking is a fundamental part of gynecologic care. Understanding a patient's sexual function rounds out the picture of her overall health and can reveal underlying issues that may otherwise be overlooked."
As NPR pointed out, the range of things that could go by the wayside if doctors don't encourage their patients to be forthcoming about sex ranges from sexually transmitted diseases to pelvic inflammatory disease to the ways in which various medicines might be involved in sexual dysfunction.
The good news, according to Lindau, is that the Internet is empowering women to be pro-active about their sexual health, and seeking out communities online may help them overcome some of the angst involved in approaching their doctors. Still, that's probably no substitute for talking to your OB-GYN, however uncomfortable that may feel.
"If you are waiting for the doctor to start the conversation, it may never happen. Communication is key," Lindau said.
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