“How to Address Sexuality and Intimacy with People Living with a Serious Illness”, Dr. Hunter Groninger and Anne Kelemen Write for the Center to Advance Palliative Care

Black and white photograph of patient in a hospital bed with a woman from his family (maybe his wife) on his side
Bethany Petrik's photograph documenting the process of her father after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, and the relationships between him and the family. / Flick

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In this piece they wrote for the Center to Advance Palliative Care, Dr. Hunter Groninger and Anne Kelemen address an area that is often overlooked in a routine palliative care assessment: the impact of serious illness on intimacy and sexuality. Though studies suggest that patients want to discuss intimacy and welcome their health care providers raising this topic, providers fail to initiate conversations to explore intimacy for those experiencing a serious illness. The authors reflect that “intimacy can be an emotionally loaded topic, so shame and embarrassment on the part of both patient and clinician can influence communication. Clinicians may not feel trained to address this topic or feel they lack the training to initiate the conversation and address questions accurately”. Thus, they suggest some questions to help providers guide the discussion, such as “How has your illness affected your relationships?” and “Help me understand what intimacy means to you and how that has changed over the course of your illness?”. They conclude that palliative care clinicians’ skills at discussing topics often perceived as “uncomfortable” “may serve their patients well by including straightforward screening questions about the impact of illness on intimacy and relationships”.

Read the piece at the Center to Advance Palliative Care.