It’s widely agreed upon by experts that medical students in the U.S. and Canada are not receiving enough training around sex education and sexual health. Most doctors receive only around 8 hours of sex education in medical school, something that about 40%-60% of medical students find inadequate. What they’re being taught isn’t any better than the information taught in high school sex ed—a heavy focus on STIs and pregnancy and almost no information regarding anything LGBTQ-related or pleasure focused. It’s also particularly lacking in education around sexual dysfunction and any sexual issues in younger or elderly demographics.
What happens when medical professionals aren’t properly able to help their patients with sexual health issues? One study showed that 71% of people thought their doctor would be dismissive of any sexual health issues they brought up and that 85% of people said they’d bring it up anyways but predicted they would be unlikely to get any treatment. A different survey showed that more than two-thirds of patients are uncomfortable discussing sexual concerns with their healthcare professionals, and this study from 2013 showed that many patients didn’t feel their doctors had the skills needed to help them.
There’s a lot of shame around sex in our society, and the people who grow up to be doctors experience it just as much as the rest of the population. Without adequate training, physicians aren’t even comfortable bringing up sexual health issues, and as few as 25% of primary care doctors routinely ask about a patient’s sexual well-being. What’s even scarier is that in a study of over a thousand OBGYN’s, only about 40% reported asking about sexual problems and less than 30% asked about sexual satisfaction. Patient’s aren’t comfortable bring up sexual health issues either—90% think sexual health topics should be approached by the doctor.
Clearly, this current model of ignoring human sexuality and reproductive healthcare isn’t working. Only one-third of doctors routinely screen their patients for STIs, possibly contributing to STIs rates in the U.S. reaching an all-time high. There are countless racial disparities in reproductive and sexual health—nearly all minority groups contract STIs at much higher rates than white individuals, and although black and latina women only make up 25% of the U.S. female population, they account for 80% of HIV/AIDS diagnoses. Physicians continue to fail the LGBTQ community, especially transgender patients, and about 20% of trans individuals have been refused care by medical professionals. Women’s sexual health continues to be an afterthought—women’s pain is frequently dismissed, 40% of women have sexual concerns (although this study reports 98.8% actually have one or more concerns), and studies on patients with vulva pain show over 50% never even get a diagnosis.
Thankfully, it looks like improvements are coming. The Association of American Medical Colleges created a guide for improving health care for LGBTQ patients, and have created extensive video resources as well. Studies are showing that more intensive sex education courses for medical students led to 96% of students saying they felt more comfortable discussing sexual health with their patients, and the medical schools are listening and are holding bi-yearly summits to improve the curriculum—hopefully leading to more open communication between doctors and patients.