An older couple walked into the therapist’s office. The marriage had been a bit rocky from the get-go, but now the woman had completely lost interest in sex. The therapist recommended that the woman seek sexual counseling.
Now, that might have been all right except that the therapist had no understanding of the very normal changes to libido brought on by menopause and thus wasn’t able to address that possibility or access resources to either reassure or help the woman.
The couple never came back.
Sue Brayne, a British therapist and author of Sex, Meaning, and the Menopause, commented in her blog on a recent workshop she conducted: “…it continues to amaze me that in a room full of therapists on their way to fifty, or who are well into their fifties and even sixties, this workshop was the first time most of them had ever spoken about the menopause in any depth, or admitted to how it is affecting their lives.”
So, while many healthcare professionals have personally experienced menopause, very few have actually received professional training or information to help others.
In a survey of 900 women conducted by womentowomen.com, 80 percent visited their doctors for help with menopausal symptoms and 60 percent came away feeling as though they hadn’t had a “supportive, honest discussion about menopause options.”
Therapists in Brayne’s workshop complained that, “their GPs [general practitioners] had no interest in the menopause, and they were often ‘fobbed off’ with unwanted prescriptions for HRT [hormone replacement therapy].”
As patients, we are often shy about discussing sexual issues to begin with, and as we’ve mentioned before, doctors rarely initiate that conversation. Throw menopause into the mix, and you may be met with discomfort, avoidance, or the “fobbing off” that Brayne mentions.
Many doctors and therapists simply aren’t equipped to understand the array of menopausal symptoms. Menopause isn’t a disease or a medical condition. A doctor can’t “fix” it. Menopause is complex in that it affects a whole bunch of physical and emotional systems, and there’s no one-size-fits-all remedy.
That said, you have every right to expect your medical practitioner to knowledgeably address your menopausal symptoms during this transitional time. And you should be able to talk openly about them. Yes, that includes sex.
So, how do you get the ball rolling with your practitioner?
If you’re frustrated in your attempts to communicate with your regular provider, or you feel you’d benefit from a specialist with targeted knowledge about menopause, the North American Menopause Society has a menopause certification program as a way of assuring basic competency and assuring high-quality care. You can find a NAMS-certified practitioner in your area by searching here.
Medical professionals may sometimes struggle to find the information they need to support and treat their menopausal patients, but as patients communicate (nicely) that they expect support and knowledgeable treatment from their doctors, everyone is nudged along the road toward greater awareness.
And that can only help us all.
In January, I was working on an article I'd been asked to provide to OBG Management magazine. They'd asked me to talk about why I offer products through my practice—which was, actually, the same motivation that led me to found MiddlesexMD: There are some simple products available that can help women remain sexually active, but it's not always easy—or comfortable—to buy them.
As I wrote the article, I wondered how you as patients feel about products being offered through your doctors' offices, so I asked. And a number of you responded, either on the blog or directly, with your thoughts. You were overwhelmingly positive, assuming that your relationship with your health care provider was one based on trust to begin with (and I hope we're all that fortunate!).
OBG Management published my article, called "Vibrators, Your Practice, and Your Patients' Sexual Health," in their April issue. Read it if you like, and take a copy to your next doctor visit if you think it would be helpful in opening a discussion about how he or she can be more helpful to you and your sexual health!
Thanks to all of you who voiced your support or concerns. We'll keep learning together—and stay as sexually active as we choose!
"Concern" is a relative term. If you mean should you lose sleep, no. If you mean should you work with your health care provider for an explanation or monitoring, yes.
Pap tests (also called a Pap smear or cervical cytology screening) are used to look for changes in the cells of the cervix; abnormal cells can be identified early and treated appropriately. Pap tests provide information on both whether cells have changed and how much cells have changed, so "abnormal" covers a range of possibilities.
The most common cause of abnormal Pap results is HPV (human papillomavirus) infection, and HPV also suggests a range: there are many types of HPV. Some lead to nothing at all, some are linked to genital warts, and some are linked to cancers of the cervix, vulva, and vagina. And, let me repeat, some lead to nothing at all.
When a Pap test returns an abnormal result, it's typical either to monitor (repeat the Pap test in six months or a year) or to take an additional diagnostic step. A colposcopy is the most common; it sounds scary, but it's really only a close visual exam of the cervix with a magnifying device. There are several tissue sampling procedures that take cells for additional lab examination.
About 70 percent of mildly abnormal results revert to the "normal" range at the next screening. That said, it's important to follow your health care provider's recommendation for a follow-up test. This is not the time to procrastinate on that office visit!
The new medical guidelines and what they mean for you.
Every year, you used to visit your ob/gyn for a Pap test and pelvic exam. Then you’d get your mammogram. Some ladies I know made it a “girlfriends date” and went out to lunch after their mammos.
It was like getting your healthcare seal of approval. All’s well with the world. See you next year.
Now the “guidelines” have changed. You’ve heard that you don’t need these tests every year. In fact, depending on your age and health status, you may not need them any more at all.
Wait, what? Who re-arranged the furniture? What does this mean?
And more to the point: What happens to the girlfriends date?
With a slew of new guidelines from the American Cancer Society and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the US Preventive Services Task Force, it’s no wonder you’re confused. One year? Three years? Beginning at what age? Ending when?
These guidelines reflect new thinking and research, not the removal of a time-honored safety net. You won’t be at greater risk—you just may not need the same tests on the same schedule. Also, different professional groups have come to slightly different conclusions about how often these preventive tests should be administered.
So, while it’s helpful to be aware of these changes, it’s also critical to discuss them with your own healthcare provider. Because your healthcare situation is unique, and guidelines are one-size-fits-all, the schedule has to be tailored to fit your specific needs. You and your doctor are the best ones to make that decision.
Here’s what some of the discussion is about.
The value of an annual physical, which ACOG also refers to as a “well-woman visit,” is that your doctor can examine and assess your overall level of health and can check for changes or abnormalities. A regular visit also keeps intact the relationship between you and your doctor. After all, it’s important to trust this person when healthcare decisions need to be made.
During your annual physical, your provider may do a pelvic examination. Herein lies some confusion. A doctor may, and often will, do this exam without a Pap test. A pelvic exam allows the doctor to take a thorough look at your external genitalia and to digitally (yes, with a finger in your vagina or rectum) examine your cervix, uterus, and other internal organs.
In its new guidelines, ACOG recommends an annual pelvic examination in women over 21. But the guidelines also state that, while an annual pelvic exam “seems logical… No evidence supports or refutes the annual pelvic examination or speculum and bimanual examination for the asymptomatic, low-risk patient.”
Translation: in the absence of symptoms, the final decision is up to you and your doctor. Pelvic exams are also important if you have any pain, discharge, bleeding, or change in bowel or bladder function. Your doctor needs to know about any of these issues.
As for the Pap test—you probably know that it only screens for cervical cancer—it’s been a very effective tool in that regard. But many women don’t need screening for cervical cancer anymore—if they no longer have a cervix, if they’ve had several normal pap tests and don’t have a lot of sexual partners.
Be aware, however, that there are other cancers of the genitals and reproductive organs, and I’ve occasionally found them during a pelvic exam: You’d better believe I still recommend an annual physical that includes a pelvic exam for my patients.
The guidelines for mammograms are even more confusing. The American Cancer Society still recommends annual screening after age 40. However, the US Preventive Services Task Force recently revised its guidelines after analyzing data extensively, to screenings every two years for women over 50. Women over 74 no longer need mammograms, according to the Task Force.
Meanwhile, physicians routinely do manual breast exams in their offices. That’s the kneading, palpating exam the doc performs to check for changes and lumps. While ACOG and other organizations still recommend a clinical breast exam every one to three years, the US Preventive Services Task Force says that “current evidence is insufficient to assess the additional benefits and harms of clinical breast examinations….”
So, what’s a woman to do?
Again, talk with your doctor. It’s good to be informed about changing guidelines and protocols. These changes only mean that research is ongoing and the body of knowledge is increasing. But you have unique risk factors, heredity, health issues, fears, lifestyle choices, and preferences. The best way to make sense of the guidelines is to discuss them with your provider in light of your personal situation, and then come to a conclusion that you’re both comfortable with.
I’d like to solicit your opinion.
As you know, (or… maybe you don’t) MiddlesexMD has an online store in which we sell all kinds of products geared toward the sexual needs and pleasures of older women—“for midlife women who want to enjoy sexuality for life,” as we say. And some products just for fun.
As I’ve explained before, I created this store for a generation of women who need more sexual stimulation, lubrication, and support, but who probably aren’t going to check out their local sex shop (assuming there is one) and who probably aren’t savvy or experienced shoppers when it comes to choosing items like vibrators or warming oils.
It wasn’t easy, let me tell you, but I’m proud of our selection, and I’m confident about the quality of their design and construction and the safety of their materials. Full disclosure: MiddlesexMD is a business, so there is some profit involved.
So what’s the problem?
Because I have this dual role—as a practicing physician and as MiddlesexMD, other health care providers ask my advice about product sales. I know that the doctor-patient relationship is a tender thing, and it’s based on trust. My patients trust me to use my skills on their behalf. They don’t want my commitment to their health and well-being diluted or divided by self-interest. Nor do I.
When doctors sell products, conflict of interest is always lurking. Can doctors be objective when they stand to make money by recommending this vitamin or that weight-loss aid? And wouldn’t patients feel some pressure to buy the product to please the doctor? Does the presence of the product in a doctor’s office imply that the doctor endorses it?
The fact that some doctors derive a significant portion of their income from selling these products in their offices reinforces that appearance of ethical shadow-boxing. A few “celebrity” doctors have become virtual mouthpieces for certain product lines, which often lack research as to their efficacy or even safety.
As you can imagine, the issue has engendered passionate discussion both pro and con within medical circles, and professional medical organization have yet to issue any guidance regarding the practice.
I can honestly say that my primary motivation for selling products that I’ve tested and sometimes use myself is to provide a tasteful, private, safe opportunity for women to buy intimate items that will help keep them sexually active and comfortable and that they’d have a hard time finding otherwise. I set prices comparable to other retail options.
I practiced medicine for years before bringing products into my office. My relationships with patients were well-established. And I’ve seen first-hand that women are more likely to follow through when I can show them what lubricants feel like or how a vibrator functions. When my patients can walk out with products they’re ready to use, rather than with one more research project for their to-do lists—well, I think that’s useful and convenient. I’m not sure I would still have an electric toothbrush if my dentist didn’t offer them for sale.
So I’d like to think I’m offering a valuable service to my patients, but can I truly be objective when I have something, however modest, to gain? Do my patients feel subtly obligated? Do I compromise my professional credibility?
What do you think? Service or self-serving? I’d really like to know.
I often recommend that people try the North American Menopause Society's (NAMS) website. NAMS has a rigorous process for certification, so the health care providers who are a part of it are likely to be committed to continuing sexual health for women like us. The website has a practitioner finder, too, so you can see whether there's a member in your area.
If that option isn't fruitful, we recently published a longer blog post with some other suggestions to explore.
Good luck, and keep looking! It's important to have a health care provider you're able to communicate and work with as you navigate the years ahead.
One of the advantages of having a medical advisor team is that I can hear reports from events I can’t attend! Michael Krychman, part of the team and medical director of The Sexual Medicine Center at Hoag Hospital and the Executive Director of the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship, provides this update from a May meeting.
A resurgence of interest in female sexuality was apparent last month at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ annual meeting. I had three presentations on female sexuality; menopausal sexual health and vaginal dryness were topics throughout the plenary and clinical courses. I completed a post-graduate course with Dr. Haywood Brown, Chair of Duke University, on Sexuality through the Lifecycle, which addressed topics like sexuality and pregnancy and postpartum; chronic medical illness and sexual function, including breast cancer; lesbian sexuality; and treatment paradigms for dysfunction. A brief, informative lecture on everything you always wanted to know about male sexuality for the female health care provider was also included in the core curriculum.
A sold-out luncheon session focused on emerging sexual pharmacology. Among the topics were new data about Flibanserin [which we’ve talked about before as “pink Viagra”]; intravaginal DHEA ovules, which may help with vaginal atrophy; PT141/bremelanotide as an option for arousal issues; and new lower-dose intravaginal estradiol for localized hormone treatment. There was also significant discussion about Osphena, which may be the first oral medication for vaginal atrophy.
A clinical seminar on Elderly Sexuality had over 100 attendees, who were very interested in learning about prevalence and incidence of sexual issues as women age; a comprehensive treatment paradigm was also presented. There were several updates on vaginal dryness and testosterone, too.
Even in the exhibit hall, sex was evident! Lelo, a premier self-stimulator company, was swamped with visitors during all hours. They introduced Intimina, their new sexual wellness line of products [which includes the Kiri, Raya, and Celesse vibrators]. Semprae Laboratories, makers of Zestra essential arousal oil, was swamped with interest over their new in-office physician retail program and distributed thousands of samples. The L’il Drugstore booth was busy with moisturizer Replens. Neogyn, a new vulvar soothing cream, was also on the exhibit floor. I even saw the Journal of Sexual Medicine floating around!
Medical support for women's sexuality has faced some challenges in the last few years. The FDA hearing on Flibanserin and the disappointing efficacy results of Libigel were a few recent set-backs, but in spite of them, attention to female sexual function and treatments for dysfunction looks to me to be going strong.
It is definitely an exciting and interesting time. The field of female sexual health and wellness is alive and thriving.
We’ve discussed when you might want to look for a new health care provider. MiddlesexMD advisor Dr. Sheryl Kingsberg minces no words on that point: If your health care provider isn’t addressing your sexual health concerns, find a new one. If your current physician isn’t listening or is talking down to you, find a new one. If you are uncomfortable and can’t communicate with your provider—you guessed it—find another.
Changing physicians is a daunting task. The process is fuzzy, and credible information is hard to come by. Maybe that’s why we put up with less-than-ideal situations for so long.
But the relationship with your doctor is too important to settle for an uneasy status quo. Trisha Torrey, who writes extensively about the issue, says it’s like choosing a spouse, except that you may be more intimate with your provider.
If you’ve been dissatisfied with your provider or are just putting up with a situation because you’ve been avoiding the task of finding a new one, here’s a plan of attack.
If possible, out of fairness to your current physician, try to address with him or her the reason for your dissatisfaction. If you aren’t a good “fit” with her personality or style of practice, a heart-to-heart might not be very productive. It’s unlikely that he can change such basic traits. But if you have a problem with her staff or have health care issues (such as sexual complaints) that haven’t been addressed, you should give your doctor an opportunity to discuss the causes of your dissatisfaction.
Also, as Torrey points out, “nice” doesn’t necessarily equal “competent.” A good bedside manner is pleasant and soothing, but for my money, I’d rather have competency.
If you’re convinced that you need a different provider, don’t leave your old provider until you’re sure you have a new one. You don’t want to come down with a cough or find a lump without a regular physician. According to a 2008 article in the New York Times, “Studies have found that it is hard to get an appointment at short notice when cold-calling, and that patients with a regular source of care get better care, even when they are uninsured.”
Then, as you begin your search, consider these issues:
Once you’ve mulled over these parameters, your next challenge is to find solid, trustworthy information about the providers on your short list. The bad news is that it may be easier to get information about a washing machine you want to buy than about a doctor you’re considering. Websites that provide information and ratings on physicians are in their infancy, and sites that feature patient reviews have to be carefully vetted for objectivity.
“The truth of the matter is that people are hard pressed to make well-informed decisions when they choose a doctor, and they’re doing it blind,” said Joyce Dubow, a senior adviser in the office of policy and strategy at AARP in an article in the New York Times.
When you call your insurance company for participating providers, ask if they have a review system or an “honor roll” of providers. Some companies are starting to do this.
Some online sites rate physicians, but they vary in quality and credibility. You wouldn’t trust a review of a washing machine from the company that sells it; neither should you find a doctor on a site hosted by a pharmaceutical company. Pay attention to who created the website, who funds it, who makes money from it, how complete it is, and how current it is. Check out healthgrades.com for basic information; reviews are often available if you Google the doctor or practice name (just use your judgment on what's a credible review source).
Doctors must be licensed to practice in a state, but board certification indicates a higher level of competency. Most providers are board-certified, and yours should be as well, either with the American Board of Medical Specialties for MDs, the American Osteopathic Organization for DOs, or the American Board of Physician Specialties, which accepts both disciplines. A doctor may be certified with other boards as well, but these three are widely recognized and demand a certain level of competency and achievement. To find a health care provider with specific menopause-care knowledge, you might start with the North American Menopause Society's website at menopause.org; there's a practitioner search you might find helpful.
Word of mouth is still a common and effective way to get information about local providers, especially if the word comes from someone in health care. I found a terrific dentist from a hygienist who taught at a dental school. Another woman found her internist from a trusted pharmacist. Ask family and friends who they see and how they like the person.
Check social media sites and search engines like Google. It’s easy and worth a shot, just make sure you’re getting information about the right person.
Finally, schedule consultations with the providers on your short list. You’ll probably have to pay for the appointment, but you’ll be able to assess the provider’s attitude and personality, the office environment, and, very importantly, the attitude of the staff.
Bring a list of questions, such as whether she schedules same-day appointments for illness, how he handles emergencies, whether you’ll see the doctor or members of the staff (physician’s assistants or nurse practitioners), how she handles prescriptions, where he went to medical school, how long she’s been in practice (if you haven’t ferreted this out already). Ask about board certification and any special training. And tell him or her you want to feel free to discuss matters of sexual health.
Finding a provider is a challenge, but it’s a critical and long-term relationship, so it’s worth putting in the effort upfront in order to avoid ongoing dissatisfaction down the road. And take heart from Dr. Sheryl: “If a women is smart enough to have found the MiddlesexMD website, she’s savvy enough to ask friends and other health care providers and to do some basic research to find someone she’s comfortable with.”
The provider-patient relationship is delicate and fraught with opportunity for misunderstanding. On one hand, you have a busy professional in a somewhat risky, stressful profession who is pressed for time and is trained to speak a foreign language—medical mumbo-jumbo.
On the other, you have ordinary people who may or may not be good at communication and who are paying a lot of money to entrust to this person their most precious possession—their health.
On one hand, it takes time to become familiar with someone’s personality and communication style. And it takes time to develop trust, which is a critical ingredient in any relationship that will last a long time, including this one.
But on the other hand, the stakes are too high to overlook for very long a bad attitude, questionable treatments, or ongoing discomfort on your part.
So how do you know when to finally pull the plug and find another health care provider? And how do you go about that process, anyway? We’ll answer the first question in this post and the second in a later post.
The top reasons to look for another health care provider: