Fingers Crossed, Minds Open

This week Thursday, there’s a dry-sounding meeting that is a big event on an issue of enormous interest to a relatively small number of us. I’m talking about the joint meeting of the Bone, Reproductive and Urologic Drugs Advisory Committee and the Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee of the FDA. Snoozing yet?

This meeting will hear presentations about Flibanserin, a drug developed to address loss of sexual desire, which is a real issue for some women. I’ve been following the prospects for Flibanserin (and other pharmaceuticals) for some time, as you may know if you’ve followed this blog. There’s been controversy—in medical, regulatory, and sociological circles. Some said the original studies were inconclusive. Some said the side effects were too significant. Others said that loss of desire isn’t an issue at all—that, variously, couples therapy, a romantic dinner, or more chocolate was the answer.

As a physician, I have conversations with women about their sex lives every day. Some women are clear about relationships that are no longer satisfying. Some have emotional issues—some from past sexual trauma, others from life’s over-abundance of stress—that affect their attitudes toward intimacy. Some have physical symptoms of discomfort or pain or loss of sensation that we can address.

But there are some who have simply lost desire. They love their partners, they have no physical symptoms or obstacles to overcome, they have no complications in their lives that would explain away the change. The overwhelming emotion they share with me is sadness. They are experiencing a loss. And my overwhelming response is frustration. Because as many options—over the counter and by prescription—as I have for vaginal dryness and pain and loss of sensation and even depression, I have no options for treating loss of desire.

Here are the things I hope the members of the advisory committees are keeping in mind when they hear the presentations this Thursday:

  • Loss of desire—for insurance code purposes, Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD)—is real. Women and their doctors are smart enough to figure out when there’s another issue of physical or emotional health. And one in 10 women has HSDD.
  • Women are as deserving as men of treatment for conditions that affect their quality of life. There are 26 drugs for male sexual dysfunctions; surely a healthy and satisfying sex life can be as important to women as to men.
  • Women and their doctors are capable of deciding for themselves what trade-offs they’d like to make with their health. We’re already doing it with hormone therapy; for some of us, the benefits to our overall health and quality of life outweigh potential risks or side effects.
  • No blanket rules are required. Whatever treatments are available will be choices, subject to the insight of health care providers and individual patients’ health histories, values, and priorities. We’re hungry for options.

And I recognize that this week’s meeting is only one step down what has already been a long road. The advisory committees will make recommendations, but they won’t make a decision. That’s the work of another day. The pharmaceutical industry has to retain interest and commitment actually to bring drugs to market. Health care providers need to educate themselves and their patients about the options and the trade-offs.

So it’s a long road, still. Please, let’s just take one step. With open minds and fingers crossed.


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