Being informed of any medical condition can be a traumatic event for even the most medically knowledgeable patient. Obviously, some conditions carry more long-term psychological effects than others, especially those which are considered incurable.
HPV (human papillomavirus) is the most common sexually transmitted disease affecting eighty percent of sexually active individuals by the time they reach age fifty. While the majority of HPV infections can regress as a result of the body’s immune system, the virus always remains in the body in a dormant state and can become active again in the future. This can occur weeks, months and even years later, usually with no symptoms to warn the patient.
As a result of society’s lack of education regarding HPV, patients often suffer not only the physical ramifications, which can range from mild dysphasia (abnormal cell changes) to severe dysplasia and cancer, but the psychological damage can be long lasting, and in many cases stem from a lack of education by the patient’s physician.
As a patient advocate, I have spoken with hundreds of individuals diagnosed with HPV. The vast number of those with whom I have interacted with regarding their HPV have received little if any information beyond being told they have it. For those who do receive information, it is often insufficient and does not permit the patient to make informed decisions regarding their future health.
Many medical organizations have stated the need for patient counseling, however this is often not the case. Some doctors believe this will result in patient hysteria when actually the opposite is true.
In this age of the Internet, one of the first things the newly diagnosed patient does is research the Internet. While there are good sources of accurate information, unfortunately other sites can result in the very hysteria which the treating physicians are claiming to try to prevent.
What physicians need to understand is it is only normal for a patient to desire information regarding their diagnosis and if not provided by the doctor, the patient will search for the information elsewhere, often with disastrous results.
Many patients have told me that they learned of their diagnosis via a letter or a phone call simply advising them that they have HPV but without any education and/or counseling provided to them.
Given the fact that HPV is a highly contagious virus, patients need to be informed without judgment that this is an STI and that they should inform their partner(s) of their diagnosis. They should also be informed of the usual regression of an active infection, but also of the potential for a persistent infection which, if untreated, can develop into invasive cancer.
Physicians, and nurses who are often given the responsibility for educating patients, need to understand the importance of counseling and of providing the patient with written information including accurate resources which can provide the patient with a means to further understanding this virus in an effort to avert the hysteria.
Nack, Adina. “Damaged Goods?: Women Living With Incurable Sexually Transmitted Diseases”, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2008,
Reviewed August 1, 2011
by Michele Blackberg R.N.
Edited by Shannon Koehle