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Study: Doctors Aren't Talking About Sex With Teenage Patients

Alex E. Proimos via Flickr

Doctors too often miss the opportunity to talk with their teenage patients about sex during annual visits, according to researchers at Duke Medicine.

A study released this week in JAMA Pediatrics shows that less than two thirds of doctors and teenage patients talk about sex and sexuality during checkups, with most conversations lasting an average of 36 seconds.  

Cleveland Shields, a researcher on the study, says the findings show that doctors need to approach the topic more often and for longer periods of time to better address the sexual health needs of teenagers.

“Because they [teenagers] often have a lot of misconceptions that they get mostly from their peer groups about sexuality and sexual risk and STDs, and so physicians theoretically could be a good source of information,” said Shields, an associate professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Purdue University. 

Duke researchers gathered audio recordings of annual visits for 253 teenagers, ages 12 to 17, at 11 pediatric and family medicine clinics in North Carolina.

They found that doctors did not bring up the topic of sex in 35 percent of the visits, and none of the teenagers initiated discussions.

Shields says that when other topics, like smoking or drinking, are brought up by doctors, patients are more likely to change their behaviors.

“So we think by extension that if physicians talk to adolescents about sexuality and sexual behavior and safe sex, kids are more likely to engage in safer and more thoughtful behaviors.”

He says that doctors may be less inclined to bring up the topic because they face competing demands and limited time, “Every kid who walks in their door is a different kid, with a different problem, and a lot of times a bad case of acne takes precedent over talking with them about sexuality.”

Broaching the subject during checkups is also not easy, he adds. “It’s not often the most comfortable conversation.”

According to the study, female patients were more than twice as likely to bring up the topic than males, and older teens were more likely than younger teens. Sex was also four times more likely to come up with longer visits and confidentiality.

Researchers hope to continue examining the conversations between doctors and teenage patients with studies looking more closely at teenagers. Smith says the long term plan is to implement educational interventions to help improve communication. 

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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