By Amir Khan
Talking to teens about sex early on could save them a great deal of trouble down the line. But the sex talk is not happening in many doctors' offices, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Researchers at Duke University Medical Center analyzed recordings of 253 adolescent doctor visits to determine how frequently sex was discussed, and found the results disappointing. Fewer than two-thirds of doctors in the study spoke to their teen patients about sex, even though doing so could help prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. What’s more, when the conversations did happen, they typically lasted for less than a minute.
"It's hard for physicians to treat adolescents and help them make healthy choices about sex if they don't have these conversations," lead author Stewart Alexander, PhD, associate professor of medicine at Duke, said in a statement. "For teens who are trying to understand sex and sexuality, not talking about sex could have huge implications."
Sex Ed Through the Media
For one thing, said Carole Lieberman MD, a psychiatrist with the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, avoiding the talk means that teens will get their information from other, possibly less reliable, sources.
“It's the media that is talking to teens about sex and giving them the wrong message,” said Dr. Lieberman. “The media, through movies, TV, music and teen celebrities, tells kids that to be cool, you have to have sex, and to have it often.”
While both parents and doctors should make sure to correct this message, often neither does, Lieberman said, because they are uncomfortable speaking to kids about sex.
“Most parents, if they talk to their kids about the birds and the bees at all, merely give an impromptu chat about not letting anyone touch their private parts,” Lieberman said. “Why? Because many parents feel too squeamish about sex, due to their own sexual hang-ups, or because sex has become too interwoven with headlines about sex abuse, rather than it being about love between two consenting adults.”
The Birds and the Bees and the Doctors
In addition to feeling squeamish, doctors don’t want to appear to be encouraging kids to have sex, she added.
“They don't want to say something to their teen patients that would seem like a suggestion that the teen engage in sex,” said Lieberman. “Ideally, doctors should talk to teens about the pressure they feel to have sex, about sexually transmitted diseases and birth control, and about how most teens aren't emotionally prepared to have sex and should wait until they are older.”
The idea that talking to kids about sex will make them more likely to rush into it is a fallacy, said Ron Feinstein, MD, a pediatrician with Cohen Children’s Medical Center in Manhasset, N.Y.
“In fact, it’s quite the opposite," Dr. Feinstein said.Talking to teens about the dangers will help them make smarter decisions
So how do you get doctors talking?
“We need to create environments in our office to make it comfortable to have these conversations,” Feinstein believes. “Physicians need to have some form of confidentiality between the teens and their parents in order to properly have the conversation, which means they need to tell the parents that there will be some private time where it will just be the patient and doctor.”
And with the advent of the HPV vaccine, broaching the subject should be easier than ever.
“The vaccine seems to be most effective beginning at 11 or 12 years of age,” Feinstein said, “and that really offers the opportunity to talk about the issue of sex.”
“It may be uncomfortable,” he added, “but we need to educate this population.”
"Doctors Avoid the Sex Talk With Teen Patients" originally appeared on Everyday Health.