Why don't healthcare professionals talk about sex? A systematic review of recent qualitative studies conducted in the United kingdom

J Sex Med. 2013 Nov;10(11):2658-70. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2012.02856.x. Epub 2012 Jul 30.


Introduction: Sexuality is considered to be an important aspect of holistic care, yet research has demonstrated that it is not routinely addressed in healthcare services. A greater understanding of this can be achieved through synthesizing qualitative studies investigating healthcare professionals' experiences of talking about sex. In doing so, policy makers and healthcare providers may be able to better address the sexual issues of service users.

Aim: To gain an in-depth understanding of healthcare professionals' subjective experience of discussing sexuality with service users by identifying the factors that impede and facilitate such discussions.

Main outcome measures: Review of healthcare professionals' experience of discussing sexuality with service users.

Methods: Electronic databases and reference lists of published articles were searched in July 2011. Primary research studies were included in the review if they explored health professionals' experiences of discussing sexuality with adult service users, used qualitative methods, and were conducted in the United Kingdom over the last 10 years. Each study was reviewed and assessed. A secondary thematic analysis method was used where key themes were extracted and grouped and key concepts were explored.

Results: Nineteen interconnected themes emerged relating to healthcare professionals' experience of discussing sexuality with service users, including fear about "opening up a can of worms," lack of time, resources, and training, concern about knowledge and abilities, worry about causing offense, personal discomfort, and a lack of awareness about sexual issues. Some themes were particularly marked relating to the sexuality of the opposite-gender, black and ethnic minority groups, older and nonheterosexual service users, and those with intellectual disabilities.

Conclusions: The majority of healthcare professionals do not proactively discuss sexuality issues with service users, and this warrants further attention. An understanding of the perceived barriers and facilitators indicates that interventions to improve the extent to which sexuality issues are addressed need to take organizational, structural, and personal factors into consideration.

Keywords: Healthcare System; Literature Review; Qualitative Research; Sexuality; Staff.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Professional-Patient Relations*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Sex Counseling*
  • Sexuality / psychology*
  • United Kingdom