How to Talk to Your Health Care Provider
Originally Published: February 6, 2017
Revised: February 6, 2017
Visiting your doctor or other health care provider is a large part of taking care of yourself. Your relationship with your doctor can be incredibly valuable in making sure you are safe, healthy and informed about your body. However, sexual health may be difficult to discuss with your health care provider for a myriad of reasons. Maybe you’re nervous about asking to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) because you fear judgment. Maybe you’re concerned that what you say to your doctor might be shared with your parents or caregivers or that you won’t get time alone with your doctor. Perhaps you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, and you’re worried your doctor will respond negatively if you come out to them. All these fears and worries can lead to not getting the care you need and deserve.
Being able to advocate for your needs takes quite a bit of getting in touch with yourself! It’s important to know what you need from this relationship and how to obtain that. Having an open and honest relationship with your health care provider can provide you with information, confidence and support. It is worth working through a little awkwardness to have someone to discuss your sexual health with.
Can We Talk?
Talking about your sexual health with your doctor can seem scary at first. For instance, I spoke to Abby, an 18-year-old from Philadelphia, about her relationship with her doctor:
“Before I went to college, I wanted to get on birth control. My doctor never asked if I wanted it though, and she never talked about anything…dealing with that sort of stuff [sexual health]. I didn’t know when to bring it up, since she never did.”
It can certainly be uncomfortable to broach the subject of sexual health, especially if you’ve known your doctor since you were younger.
I wondered what it’s like on the other side for doctors. To get more information about this, I talked to pediatrician Tonya Katcher, M.D., M.P.H., who practices adolescent health privately but also works for Advocates for Youth, where she focuses on teen-friendly reproductive health services and contraceptive access. Many doctors are open and willing to discuss sexual health. Dr. Katcher suggests bringing sexual health up casually. She recommends a simple, “Can we talk about sexual health today?” If the reaction isn’t what you want, it may be worthwhile to consider another doctor. Even some doctors may not be comfortable talking about sexual health, it turns out! It’s important to find a health care provider that you feel comfortable with and who feels comfortable talking about sexual health.
Just Between You and Me
Confidentiality concerns and confusion can also keep teens from discussing sexual health with their doctors. This can be an especially large worry for LGBTQ teens. I spoke to Kylie, 17, from Marlton, NJ, who identifies as a lesbian, about this issue.
“I came out to my mom only a few months ago,” she explains. “I was in a relationship with a girl before that, back when I wasn’t ready to tell my mom.” Even if you aren’t ready to come out to your family, it is important you talk with your health care provider about any sexual behavior you engage in, regardless of who it is with. But that’s not always easy.
“My doctor would ask me if I had a boyfriend at my checkups, so I just said no,” says Kylie. “I would have wanted to talk about my relationship with my pediatrician, but I was worried she might write it on my chart or tell my mom or something. I wasn’t ready for that.”
In Kylie’s circumstance, she may have benefitted from speaking to her doctor without a parent. If a health care provider doesn’t seem open to treating you as an LGBTQ person, then you will need to find another doctor who can treat you with the dignity and care you deserve.
Challenges speaking with health care providers aren’t exclusive to members of the LGBTQ community. For example, some teens may be having sex but aren’t ready to talk with their parents about it or perhaps they’re facing an issue with their sexual health that they don’t want to discuss with their parent or guardian. If this is the case, it can be helpful to be aware of confidentiality rules in your area. Minor consent laws vary from state to state, but most states allow teens to consent to reproductive health services, like STD testing, without a parent knowing. (Visit Sexetc.org and click on Action Center and then Sex in the States to learn more about the laws in your state.) Confidentiality rules can vary from clinic to clinic, so it’s important to ask your doctor or nurse what their office’s policies are. (Keep in mind that if you’re using a parent’s health insurance, any tests that are ordered for you will appear on their insurance.) Dr. Katcher urges patients to know what they’re entitled to so that they are able to get the care they need. She also reminded me that if a health care provider asks you a question you’re uncomfortable with, you have the right to not answer. Knowing what you are entitled to and being aware of your clinic or doctor’s office policies can help you feel comfortable bringing up more sensitive topics with your doctor.
If your doctor is unwilling to provide you with the care you need or the confidentiality you desire, Planned Parenthood or other Title X clinics are great alternatives to your family doctor or pediatrician (Title X clinics are government-funded clinics anyone can go to for reproductive health services). Seeing a different doctor than your pediatrician can also be a great option for teens who feel uncomfortable discussing their sexual needs with a family doctor.
Taking care of your sexual health is incredibly important! A good relationship with your health care provider can be an awesome way to get up-to-date information and make sure your health is taken care of. You deserve a doctor you can confide in and who can help you make the right choices for you. Although it can be intimidating to bring up your sexual health with your doctor, it is an important part of taking care of yourself and getting in touch with your needs.
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