Dr. Katz shares why she thinks doctors are hesitant to initiate talks on sexual health topics.
I think that we have a responsibility to break the silence with our patients. We know from research that patients want to talk about it, but they want us to ask first. And we know from that same research that health providers say they are prepared to talk about it, but they want the patient to broach the topic first because we don’t want to be seen as being voyeuristic or weird in some way.
The result is that deafening silence. I think that it is very courageous of patients to actually broach the topic, and many, many do, but I think as healthcare providers, we need to provide care for the whole patient, right? We are not just treating that tumor or that organ. We are treating the whole person, and increasingly over the years, we have come to realize that that’s very, very important. That whole body-mind connection is very important.
So I think that as healthcare providers, we have a responsibility to talk about it. It is threatening to healthcare providers. There is always the issue of time. I have been told over and over and over by oncologists, “If I open that door, if I ask the question, I am going to be stuck in that room for 45 minutes, and there’s a waiting room full of patients.”
You know, that’s one barrier. Often we sight the barrier of privacy, you know? I see patients in an open area, or the walls are ready thin, or there’s a curtain. How can we talk about this? I have answers for all of this. Mostly I think it’s that we are afraid that the patient is going to ask us something that we don’t know the answer to, and somehow we think that we need to be experts on sexuality, you know, because I guess we all have sex or want to have sex.
I think for any nurse, for example, it is not uncommon for a patient to ask a question you don’t know the answer to. You say, “You know, I don’t know the answer to that, but I am going to find it. I’ll either look in a book or look in a journal or speak to one of my colleagues.” Why are we embarrassed to do that when a question about sexuality happens? So I think it’s multifaceted.
About Dr. Katz, R.N., Ph.D.:
My professional life is focused on providing information, education and counseling to people with cancer and their partners about sexual changes that can occur during and after treatment. But there is another important aspect to this work; I want every cancer patient to be able to have a discussion about sexuality with their health care providers.