Prevention through identifying risk factors and health promotion to address these is becoming standard practice, for example in programs supporting patients to stop smoking. However, some risk factors such as sexual behaviour, cannot be easily assessed, are more difficult to measure and less likely to be recorded. Potentially risky sexual behaviour is sensitive information which is more difficult to classify as present or absent, but is still important in assessing a person’s overall health risk. Previous research indicates that although patients prefer to discuss sexual health issues with GPs compared to other healthcare workers, patients often wait for a sign from their GPs before discussing this intimate subject whereas GPs usually wait for a sign from the patient.
This was confirmed in a recently study, ‘Collecting and registering sexual health information in the context of HIV risk in the electronic medical record of general practitioners: a qualitative exploration of the preference of general practitioners in urban communities in Flanders (Belgium)‘, published in Primary Care Research and Development, with lead author Jolien Vos, who is a graduate research assistant at CaHRU. The study team interviewed 13 GPs in Flanders (Belgium) who had experience with HIV patients. The interviews explored what GPs considered to be ‘risk factors’ in terms of sexually risky behaviour as well as how they collected, discussed and registered this information.
The study revealed that although participating GPs said that they felt comfortable discussing sexual health with patients, they assumed that patients would not feel at ease with this. GPs felt that waiting for the patient to initiate the discussion would mean that it would only take place when a problem had already occurred. Sexual orientation was often seen as an indicator for GPs to be cautious when enquiring about sexual risk behaviour. The GPs emphasised the importance of discussing sexual health and the need for guidance on recording information sexual risky behaviour more systematically, to support continuity of care while maintaining privacy of sensitive patient data in a country where patients are free to move GP and general practices are becoming more multidisciplinary.