I recently attended a webinar on women’s reproductive health organised by an insurance firm in the country and I could not help but notice how women were concerned about the well-being of their sexual health, from the many follow-up questions the doctor was receiving.
However, what caught my attention was that the majority of questions, which were vital to their health, were asked anonymously. While we might look at it as a choice that should not be questioned, it is time to interrogate how open patients are with healthcare providers when it comes to sexual health.
A few months back, my colleagues and I had an interesting discussion on whether men seek medical help for sexual health problems. We wondered what doctor they would go to because women can easily rush to a gynaecologist. We also discussed cultural beliefs and whether these were a hindrance to men talking about their sexual health. While this discussion was not conclusive, it should be a concern the ministries of Health and Education should look into. One might ask, why the Education mnistry? I believe what we are taught in school has a lot to do with what we see as normal or taboo.
Culturally, in the African setting, discussions on sex and sexual health were considered off-limits and only paternal aunts would discuss female sexual matters with their nieces. However, education normalised these issues and people were free to talk about them sometimes even in religious institutions.
But, sexual health, despite not being a taboo, has experienced barriers that have made it difficult for patients- both male and female - to talk about it freely with their doctors. There is still a culture of uneasiness when it comes to discussions about sexual health, especially women’s, that often hinders open conversations between healthcare providers and patients.
A study on patients’ experience of sexuality as a taboo subject in the Danish healthcare system revealed that while patients initiated conversations about their sexual health, they felt rejected by their healthcare providers. Many women and men, for fear of judgement and rejection, would rather consult ‘Dr Google’. Due to the fear of rejection, some women rarely tell their partners they are on yeast infection treatment which would require the partners to undergo the treatment too.
About 93 per cent of communication occurs through non-verbal behaviour and tone while only 7 per cent takes place though words. Healthcare providers need to be able to read the non-verbal communication of their patients and encourage them to open up.
Sexual health education should not start and stop with contraceptives and cancers. It should be all rounded. We need to normalise telling young girls and boys about infections that one might contract, not just because they had sexual intercourse, but through various avenues such as the toilets they use and general hygiene because they can be treated.
We, therefore, need to raise awareness about barriers to open conversations about sexual health and develop tools that will help us sustain these conversations. By normalising these conversations, we are raising awareness of sexual health issues.
We need to break barriers between patients and healthcare providers by encouraging sexual health conversations from a young age. Just like menstruation is taught in schools and children understand that it is a normal process, it is time we considered talking about sexual health and problems that are associated with it.
This will not only help to normalise the conversation, but will also encourage health-seeking behaviour. We must tackle the problem from the root, which is the fear of judgement by healthcare providers and society as a whole.
Ms Nasimiyu is a communications professional