"Opening a can of worms": GP and practice nurse barriers to talking about sexual health in primary care

Fam Pract. 2004 Oct;21(5):528-36. doi: 10.1093/fampra/cmh509.


Background: There is evidence that health professionals do not discuss sexually related issues in consultations as often as patients would like. Although primary care has been identified as the preferred place to seek treatment for sexual health concerns, little is known either of the factors that prevent GPs and practice nurses initiating such discussions or of how they feel communication in this area could be improved.

Objective: The purpose of the present study was to identify barriers perceived by GPs and practice nurses to inhibit discussion of sexual health issues in primary care and explore strategies to improve communication in this area.

Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 22 GPs and 35 practice nurses recruited from diverse practices throughout Sheffield.

Results: The term 'can of worms' summarized participants' beliefs that sexually related issues are highly problematic within primary care because of their sensitivity, complexity and constraints of time and expertise. Particular barriers were identified to discussing sexual health with patients of the opposite gender, patients from Black and ethnic minority groups, middle-aged and older patients, and non-heterosexual patients. Potential strategies to improve communication about sexual health within primary care included training, providing patient information and expanding the role of the practice nurse; however, several limitations to these approaches were identified.

Conclusion: GPs and practice nurses do not address sexual health issues proactively with patients, and this area warrants further attention if policy recommendations to expand the role of primary care within sexual health management are to be met.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Communication Barriers*
  • England
  • Ethnicity
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nurse Practitioners*
  • Nurse-Patient Relations
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Physicians, Family*
  • Primary Health Care
  • Sex Factors
  • Sexual Dysfunction, Physiological / psychology*