I’m very interested in the experiences people have with health professionals when sexual health is the topic for discussion and the reason for a genital examination. In the years I’ve worked in the sexual health field it seems that, along with a partner’s response to a herpes diagnosis, the other key factor that radically helps or hinders the adjustment to the diagnosis is the extent to which a health professional is supportive, well informed and clearly at ease with sexual health talk.
The health professional’s ‘comfort zone’ with sexual health is made obvious to patients through body language, the words used and the combination of skill and ‘bedside manner’ when examining a person’s genital area.
In my PhD study I asked my participants about their ‘prescription’ for an ideal consultation and what stood out to me was that people weren’t asking for the moon – they were asking for all of the above, which in a nutshell is wanting to feel respected – physically, emotionally and intellectually.
A number of participants in my study reported that they changed doctors because of a doctor’s reaction to the diagnosis. Good on them! My encouragement to anyone with herpes is that you are entitled to come away from an appointment with a health professional feeling better – not worse.
In New Zealand, given that it’s such a small country with an ‘everyone knows everyone’ feeling, many people have worries about privacy and confidentiality, even if they like their doctor – once there is a herpes diagnosis in the mix, some people have fears about how well other clinic staff with respect their privacy. Even if people feel confident about confidentiality they may not want their friend’s daughter – the practice nurse – possibly knowing their sexual health history.
For any of the above reasons , some people choose not to consult their usual ‘family’ doctor about herpes. In New Zealand, the other easy options available to both women and men are to go to a sexual health clinic or a FPA (previously Family Planning ) clinic. On our website you’ll see the link to contact details for all the free sexual health clinics in NZ. With both these options there is usually continuity with the same health professional with any follow-up appointment.
For privacy, some people go to a medical ‘super-clinic’ rather than their own GP when they develop a sexual health problem. Although this choice may work well for some people, in my clinical experience I have more often been told that this choice did not work – there is no guarantee of who you will see or whether the clinician has any particular sexual health knowledge and skills – and follow-up with the same person is difficult if not impossible.
My key messages are:
- if you don’t feel respected, don’t keep putting up with it!
- sexual health is a normal, adult health issue and if a doctor or nurse has a problem with this topic then the problem is theirs; no one should feel shamed or judged in a sexual health consultation
- there are some fabulous health professionals who are highly skilled and interested in your wellbeing and who are as troubled as you are about some of the (non)care people receive
- in New Zealand, if your doctor or nurse hasn’t heard of the New Zealand Herpes Foundation educational material and guidelines then hear warning bells – they may well not be up-to-date with information