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Chronic Disease, Events, Medicine X, Sexual Health

A discussion of intimacy and illness at Medicine X: “Embrace yourself and embrace your normal”

A discussion of intimacy and illness at Medicine X: "Embrace yourself and embrace your normal"

21735972186_ef347da42d_zMedicine X is well known for shining a light on dark feelings and difficult-to-talk about topics, as well as being a safe place to hold such conversations within the health-care community. Last year, a key theme of the conference was addressing the relationship of mental and physical health. The discussion of treating the whole person, not just their disease or symptoms, was expanded this year to include sexual health.

In a Sunday session exploring intimacy and illness, Medicine X executive board member and well-known patient advocate Sarah Kucharski bravely spoke about her own relationship experiences as she led the discussion. “Illness completely changes one’s relationship with one’s body. It’s the idea of feeling broken. Of feeling you’re a burden. Of feeling not sexy,” she said.

Diagnosed at the age of 31 with intimal fibromuscular dysplasia, Kucharski has undergone multiple surgeries, resulting in permanent scarring of her body. She shared with the audience her anxiety over romantic partners seeing the scars for the first time during intimate moments and suddenly having to answer their questions. She said, “To expose that visual reminder of my health, maybe it’s too much. Maybe it’s forcing me to be who I really am instead of enjoying a certain escapism,” she said. “It takes away my opportunity to talk about my health.”

Many patients and caregivers can relate to Kucharski’s struggle with intimacy and illness. She conducted an informal online survey in preparation for the conversation. The biggest finding? There is no normal. But this reality often isn’t conveyed in doctor-patient conversations. For patients who undergo a medical procedure or women who give childbirth, physician advice is usually to wait for a certain period of time until they are physically healed and then resume sexual activity “when they feel ready.”

Matthew Dudley, MD, a hospitalist who works in Alaska, said one of the factors driving the lack of doctor-patient communication about sexual health is that “health care in this country is reactionary.” He added, “We end up dealing with this emergent actions, and so you don’t get time to sit down and talk about these issues.”

In addition, pointed out panelist Alexandra Drane, the medical education curriculum at many institutions doesn’t dedicate enough time to sexual health issues. Beyond expanding the training of future doctors, she advocated for “normalizing the conversation” about intimacy. “This is a topic that most people really, really want to talk about. There needs to be training [for doctors] on how to have these conversations and how to make someone feel safe and normal,” said Drane, co-founder of the Eliza Corporation.

But more training for medical students may not to be the silver bullet that resolves the problem, say some panelists. Dudely said he received a full two weeks of training on sexual health issues during medical school. “I thought at my school we did a good job,” he said, “But in the day to day it gets lost. We need patients to go to their doctors and say, ‘I want to know more about this.’ As our culture becomes more open about these issues, I think it will come to the forefront.”

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Fertility, Pediatrics, Public Health, Research, Sexual Health, Stanford News, Women's Health

IUD is overlooked as excellent birth control for teens, Stanford expert says

IUD is overlooked as excellent birth control for teens, Stanford expert says


When teenagers think of birth control, the pill and condoms are likely the first to come to mind – and indeed the pill is the number one choice of contraceptive among adolescents. But according to Stanford ob/gyn expert Paula Hillard, MD, the IUD is a long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) excellently suited for adolescents. In an editorial published in the October issue of Journal of Adolescent Health, Hillard urges doctors to consider the benefits of LARCs for young women.

The IUD and other LARCs don’t require consistent, correct daily use, so they’re easier to use and less likely to fail. In addition to being extremely effective, IUDs have a high rate of satisfaction among adolescents. Some types of IUDs can also be used therapeutically for problems like heavy bleeding or cramping. LARCs are also cost-effective over time, and the initial investment is no longer a barrier in California due to the Family PACT program, which allows teens to confidentially access birth control at no cost. In addition, the Affordable Care Act mandates that contraceptive methods must be covered in most cases without a co-pay.

So what are the barriers to use? They include misconceptions and lack of information on the part of both teens and providers, as well as provider concerns about the insertion procedure in young women who haven’t given birth.

In an email, Hillard told me:

Many physicians and most adolescents are unaware that modern IUDs provide contraception that is 20 times more effective than birth control pills, the patch or the ring. IUDs are a method of birth control that is very safe, very effective, and “forgettable”.  IUDs are considered to be “top tier” contraceptive methods (along with subdermal implants and sterilization, which is not appropriate for typical adolescents) by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

IUD use has increased from 0.5 percent to 2.5 percent among teens 15-19 years old over the past decade. Still, around 50 percent of obstetrician-gynecologists don’t consider an IUD as a first-line contraceptive for adolescents.

Hillard closes her piece with a discussion of the challenges and importance of counseling for adolescents. Proper counseling includes giving the most effective options priority, and discussing side-effects up front (which improves adherence to contraceptive regimens, including in adults). She writes:

It remains important for us as clinicians to fight for reproductive justice and contraceptive access for all women, with the elimination of barriers including costs. In our counseling, we need to honor principles of informed consent, be aware of power differences between ourselves and our patients, be certain that our counseling is not coercive, and carefully respect our patients’ choices.

Previously: Research supports IUD use for teens, Will more women begin opting for an IUD?, Study shows women may overestimate the effectiveness of common contraceptives and Study: IUDs are a good contraceptive option for teens
Photo by Liz Henry

FDA, Media, Research, Science Policy, Sexual Health, Women's Health

“A historic moment for women”: FDA approves the first drug to treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder

"A historic moment for women": FDA approves the first drug to treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder

20705116491_5351758c67_zRoughly 16 million women over the age of 50 suffer from low sex drive. Yet, until recently, there were no FDA-approved medications to treat the lack of sexual thoughts and desire experienced by women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD).

That’s why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval of the drug flibanserin (sold under the brand name Addyi™) to treat women with HSDD, is such big news.

“It’s a historic moment for women,” said Leah Millheiser, MD, director of Stanford’s Female Sexual Medicine Program, in a story published today in the San Francisco Chronicle. HSDD, Millheiser explains, is more than the occasional loss of sexual desire that can result from changes in hormones, stress and discontent in a relationship. “These are women who want to have sex with their partner, they’re attracted to their partner and used to love having sex,” Millheiser said. “It’s as if someone turned off the lightbulb.”

It’s tempting to equate flibanserin to Viagra (the drug approved to treat erectile disfunction in men), but this is clinically inaccurate. As explained in the article, Viagra treats erectile dysfunction by increasing blood flow to the penis, while flibanserin works on the brain.

From the story:

The drug [flibanserin] was first developed as an antidepressant. Like other antidepressants, it works on the brain’s serotonin levels, but researchers say it works on different serotonin receptors than other similar antidepressants.

It didn’t work to relieve depression, as it turned out, but patients reported increased sexual desire.

In clinical trials, researchers said 53 percent of women who took the drug reported an increased desire for sex and 29 percent said the drug decreased their level of distress over their condition. In the trials, the number of “satisfying sexual events” reported by participants essentially doubled from an average of 2.5 per month before they received flibanserin to five while taking it.

Millheiser credits Viagra for helping to pave the way for this new approved treatment for HSDD.  “As a result of Viagra, there was an explosion in research and understanding into what sexual dysfunction is and how we treat it,” she said. “It took 17 years to … get to this day,” she said.

Previously: When hormonal issues interfere with mental healthFemale sexual health expert responds to delay in approval for “Viagra for women and Speaking up about female sexual dysfunction
Photo by Day Donaldson

Events, Medicine and Literature, Medicine and Society, Patient Care, Sexual Health

Surgeon-author: “My intent is to let people know that the person next door could be intersex”

Surgeon-author: "My intent is to let people know that the person next door could be intersex"

None of the Above“How many of you know what intersex is?” surgeon and author Ilene Wong, MD, (who did her residency at Stanford and writes under the pen name I.W. Gregorio) asked an audience of medical students, doctors and community members at a recent panel discussion on the topic on Stanford’s campus.

Since we’d gathered at the event, which was sponsored by Stanford’s Medicine & the Muse Program and Pegasus Physician Writers, to listen to a book reading and discussion about intersex — a term that describes sex characteristics that are neither all female nor all male — you might think we were all well-informed about the topic. We were not, and our fidgety response to Gregorio’s opening question hinted at the problem we came to discuss: a widespread lack of knowledge in the medical, and general, community about intersex individuals.

As Gregorio and her fellow panelists, Jeanne Nollman, founder of the AIS-DSD Support Group, and Hillary Copp, MD, a pediatric urologist at the University of California, San Francisco, delved into the discussion topic – “Has the medical community failed the intersex community?” – we gained a better understanding of what it means to be intersex, why so little is known about it and what can be done to remedy this.

“I met my first intersex patient when I was pregnant with my first child,” Gregorio told us. “It made me think of what it means to be a woman and how your chromosomes determine so much.” At the time, medical students received little training on intersex, Gregorio said. “There’s still a huge gap in medical education on what intersex is. Too often intersex is distilled down to one line on the chalkboard or one question on an exam.”

Her experience inspired Gregorio to write None of the Above, a young adult book about an 18-year old girl who learns she is intersex. “Books help us think about and talk about difficult issues,” she explained. “My intent is to let people know that the person next door could be intersex.”

Intersex is more common than you may think, occurring in approximately one in every 2000 individuals. This means that a person is more likely to be intersex than they are to have cystic fibrosis – yet most people have heard of the latter condition.

So, why isn’t intersex more well known? Nollman and Copp offered some possible explanations. “Many people think [it’s] a dirty thing because it has the word ‘sex’ in it,” said Nollman. “They think it’s something shameful they can’t talk about.”

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Global Health, Pediatrics, Public Health, Research, Sexual Health, Stanford News

Male attitudes about sexual violence challenged by educational program in Kenya

Male attitudes about sexual violence challenged by educational program in Kenya

Your-MomentIn the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, where sexual assault is rampant, an NGO called No Means No Worldwide has made important inroads in reducing rape of girls and women. As I’ve reported previously, their empowerment program for high-school girls teaches young women that they are entitled to stop unwanted sexual advances and gives them skills to do so.

But, in a culture with persistent denigration of women, girls’ lack of empowerment is only part of the problem. Fortunately, the people at No Means No Worldwide have also been asking how to improve male attitudes and behaviors toward women.

The curriculum for these young men is centered on getting them to think about what kind of people they want to be

Today, they’re reporting success in the first study of their curriculum for adolescent boys. The set of six two-hour classes for young men in impoverished Nairobi high schools focused on getting participants to challenge prevailing ideas about of women, as a Stanford expert who worked on the study explains in our press release:

“The curriculum for these young men is centered on getting them to think about what kind of people they want to be,” said lead author Jennifer Keller, PhD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “It’s about really getting them invested in why they need to step up and care about violence toward women: It affects their mothers, sisters and girlfriends.”

The classes helped boys recognize the cultural normalization of violence against women, and gain skills and courage to stop it. Topics of discussion included myths about women, negative gender stereotypes, when and how to safely intervene if you see someone else acting violently toward a woman, and what constitutes consent to sexual activity:

“If you think that when you take a woman out to dinner, she owes you something, you may believe that consent is different than it actually is,” Keller said. “The instructors and young men talked about understanding what true consent is and how to get that consent.”

At the end of the classes and at follow-up nine months later, the boys and young men who participated had significantly better attitudes and beliefs about women than a control group who participated in a life-skills class. Members of the intervention group also were more likely to step in to try to stop violent behavior they saw toward women. In the future, the research team plans to test whether the program also improves young men’s behavior in their own relationships with girlfriends.

Previously: Rape prevention program in Kenya attracting media attention, funding, Working to prevent sexual assaults in Kenya and Empowerment training prevents rape of Kenyan girls
Photo of participants in the “Your Moment of Truth” program by Duthie Photography, courtesy of No Means No Worldwide

Events, Mental Health, Sexual Health, Stanford News, Women's Health

Women’s health experts tackle mood disorders and sexual assault

Women's health experts tackle mood disorders and sexual assault

3131235412_fa7f528735_zEarlier this week I reported from the Women’s Health Forum, held on Monday for the sixth year running. The hardest part about attending the event was deciding which among all the interesting talks to attend.

Among the many sessions, the two that most piqued my interest focused on women’s mental health. Katherine (Ellie) Williams, MD, spoke about mood disorders related to the menstrual cycle, and Laraine Zappert, PhD, discussed the psychological impact of sexual assault. Both are from the school’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Williams’ talk began with a cartoon of a dishwasher bursting with dishes, clothes, a phone, a vacuum – above a caption quip about PMS. The out-of-control energy of the sketch conveys the affective thundercloud often associated with women and their “hormones.” Williams identified three periods when this thundercloud may be an actual mood disorder, as opposed to “normal” fluctuations: pre-menstrual, perinatal, and perimenopausal.

Technically speaking, “PMS” is about physical symptoms and is fairly common, whereas pre-menstrual dysphoric disorders (PMDDs) is all about mood and affects less than 5 percent of women. The disruption happens in the luteal phase of a woman’s cycle, usually the two weeks after ovulation – this is a big chunk of time we’re talking about, nearly 50 percent! Treatments for disorders in all periods include exercise, acupuncture, and diet supplements, and pharmaceuticals like certain birth control pills and antidepressants (which interestingly work differently for women with PMDD than for people in general – when taken only during that luteal phase, they have fast onset time and cause no withdrawal symptoms).

Researchers are learning more about how to predict and prevent cycle-related mood disorders, and increasingly it is clear that life context plays a major role. Stressful life events, interpersonal conflicts, marital tension, and previous mental-health instabilities (from being a perfectionist to having suffered childhood abuse or major depressive breakdowns) are the primary risk factors. This knowledge means clinical practitioners have to think much more broadly about how to help women, particularly in terms of prevention, Williams said.

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Global Health, Mental Health, Research, Sexual Health, Women's Health

Exploring links between domestic violence, depression and reproductive health

Exploring links between domestic violence, depression and reproductive health

abused womanIt’s no surprise that domestic violence has effects that ripple outward in a victim’s life, beyond physical traces of abuse. Research into just what those effects are can help physicians provide better counseling and treatment, and two new studies show striking correlations between domestic violence, mental illness, and contraception use.

The first study, published in Depression and Anxiety, enrolled a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 mothers with no previous history of depression, and assessed them over 10 years. It was headed by Isabelle Ouellet-Morin, PhD, researcher at the University of Montreal. Thirty-three percent of the women reported being the victim of violence from their partner, and these women had a twofold increase in their risk of suffering from new-onset depression (after controlling for childhood maltreatment, socioeconomic deprivation, antisocial personality, and young motherhood). Compared with women who had never been victims of violence, women who were abused both in childhood and adulthood were 4-7 times more likely to suffer from depression. The results were similar for psychotic symptoms.

Louise Arseneault, PhD, co-author and professor of developmental psychology at Kings College London, is quoted in PsychCentral:

Health professionals need to be very aware of the possibility that women who experience mental health problems may also be the victims of domestic violence and vice versa. Given the prevalence of depression in these victims, we need to prevent these situations and take action. These acts of violence do more than leave physical damage; they leave psychological scars as well.

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Global Health, Pediatrics, Sexual Health, Women's Health

Rape prevention program in Kenya attracting media attention, funding

Rape prevention program in Kenya attracting media attention, funding

stop rape signI’ve written previously about No Means No Worldwide, a non-profit that has partnered with several Stanford researchers to document the success of their self-defense programs for preventing rapes of girls in Nairobi, Kenya. Over the last week, the program has garnered some wonderful news coverage of its complementary program to educate boys about their responsibility for stopping rape, including a Reuters story that describes how some schoolboys halted the sexual assault of a young girl:

Having been trained to defend girls against sexual assault, the boy called other young men to help him confront the man and rescue the child.

“It would have been fatal,” said Collins Omondi, who taught the boy as part of a program to stamp out violence against women and girls in Nairobi slums. “If this man would have assaulted this kid, he would have thrown her inside the river.”

The Reuters story also mentions some very heartening news: Thanks to funding from the British government, all of Nairobi’s 130,000 secondary school students will undergo the six-week No Means No Worldwide programs for girls and boys by the end of 2017.

Upworthy has also covered the programs’ success. From their story:

In many parts of the world, assault prevention starts and ends with what women can do to avoid putting themselves in “high-risk” situations. These are not effective.

Researchers used Kenya’s scenario to test the two methods. One group of women received the No Means No [empowerment and self-defense] training while the other took a life-skills class. Girls who received the No Means No training saw a nearly 40% decrease in rapes in the year following the program. Girls who took the life-skills offering were raped at the same rate.

Not only is teaching women how to avoid “high-risk” situations ineffective, but it shifts the blame to the victim for being raped instead of putting it on the rapist for actually committing the crime.

Committing a crime is a choice, and the No Means No program empowers young boys to choose not to commit that crime.

Previously: Empowerment training prevents rape of Kenyan girls and Self-defense training reduces rapes in Kenya
Photo by Steve McClaughin

LGBT, Medicine and Society, Research, Sexual Health, Stanford News

Asexuality: “That doesn’t mean there is something wrong”

Asexuality: "That doesn't mean there is something wrong"

7719085120_8119b3bfbe_zAs a scholar with ties in both humanities and medicine, I’m always interested when those realms intersect. Medical understanding of sexuality has been heavily influenced by social science and humanities research, and now a new frontier in sexuality studies, asexuality, is being pioneered at Stanford. 

Karli Cerankowski, PhD, who graduated from Stanford’s Program in Modern Thought and Literature last year and is a lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric, is working on broadening our perception of healthy sexuality by including lower levels of sexual or romantic desire. Her work, recently spotlighted by Stanford News, traces people who might now identify as asexual through historical and pop cultural works, analyzing how they and society have interacted. She’s quoted in the Stanford News piece as saying that “society has normalized certain levels of sexual desire while pathologizing others. In a sense, it’s the social model that’s broken, not asexuals.”

Asexuality is a very new field of study, which exists under the wide umbrella of sexuality and gender studies. Cerankowski and her co-editor, Megan Milks, recently published the second book ever to be written on the topic. Thinking about the ways people experience their sexuality, desire, and gender informs how science and medicine understand optimal human health. Although sex and sexuality occupy a prominent place in our culture’s understanding of bodies, they are not prominent for every individual.

Cerankowski, again quoted in Stanford News, says:

If we recognize the diversity of human sexuality, then we can understand that there are some people who just don’t experience sexual attraction or have a lower sex drive or have less sex, and that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with them… We sort of prioritize sexual pleasure and sexual fulfillment in our lives, but we can think about the other ways that people experience intense pleasure, like when listening to music.

Pleasure and desire are important aspects of being human, but they don’t have to be tied to sex, or even to romance. On the wide spectrum of asexuality, there is room for those who engage neither in sex nor romance, as well as those who enjoy a romantic partnership and may engage in sex for reasons other than personal desire. This spectrum intersects with other aspects of sexuality that have also, though activism, become recognized as spectrums: sexual orientation, sexual identification, and gender identification.

Previously: Med students want more sexual health training, Changing the prevailing attitude about AIDS, gender and reproductive health in southern Africa and Living with disorders of sex development
Photo by trollhare

Genetics, In the News, LGBT, Medicine and Society, Research, Sexual Health

Sex biology redefined: Genes don’t indicate binary sexes

Sex biology redefined: Genes don't indicate binary sexes

14614853884_3d6d1d662a_zImagine being a forty-six-year-old woman pregnant with her third child, whose amniocentesis follow-up shows that half her cells carry male chromosomes. Or a seventy-year-old father of three who learns during a hernia repair that he has a uterus. A recent news feature in Nature mentioned these cases as it elaborated on the spectrum of sex biology. People can be sexed in a non-straightforward way and not even be aware of it; in fact, most probably aren’t. As many as 1 person in 100 has some form of “DSD,” a difference/disorder of sex development.

The simple scenario many of us learned in school is that two X chromosomes make someone female, and an X and a Y chromosome make someone male. These are simplistic ways of thinking about what is scientifically very complex. Anatomy, hormones, cells, and chromosomes (not to mention personal identity convictions) are actually not usually aligned with one binary classification.

The Nature feature collects research that has changed the way biologists understand sex. New technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that chromosomal sex is a process, not an assignation.

As quoted in the article, Eric Vilain, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at UCLA, explains that sex determination is a contest between two opposing networks of gene activity. Changes in the activity or amounts of molecules in the networks can sway the embryo towards or away from the sex seemingly spelled out by the chromosomes. “It has been, in a sense, a philosophical change in our way of looking at sex; that it’s a balance.”

What’s more, studies in mice are showing that the balance of sex manifestation can be shifted even after birth; in fact, it is something actively maintained during the mouse’s whole life.

According to the Nature feature, true intersex disorders, such as those from divergent genes or the inability of cellular receptors to respond to hormones, yield conflicting chromosomal and anatomical sex. But these are rare, about 1 in 4,500. For the 1/100 figure, they used a more inclusive definition of DSDs. More than 25 genes that affect sex development have now been identified, and they have a wide range of variations that affect people in subtle ways. Many differences aren’t even noticed until incidental medical encounters, such as in the opening scenarios (the first was probably caused by twin embryos fusing in the woman’s mother’s womb; the second by a hormonal disorder).

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