Survey: Many Young Women Lack Accurate Information about STDs

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Dr. Heather Royer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing researcher, surveyed 302 women, 18 to 24 years old, about their beliefs about STD testing.

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Based on my clinical experience and now by the results of this study, it’s clear many women have significant misconceptions about STDs and STD testing

Can stigmas about testing hinder the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and screening among young women?

“Based on my clinical experience and now by the results of this study, it’s clear many women have significant misconceptions about STDs and STD testing,” says Dr. Heather Royer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing researcher who recently completed a study of young women’s knowledge and beliefs about STDs. ''Those beliefs may influence continued disease transmission.''

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four young women is infected with at least one of the four most common STDS affecting women -- human papillomavirus (HPV), Chlamydia, genital herpes, and trichomoniasis. About 19 million new sexually transmitted infections occur each year among all age groups in the United States while half of these infections occur in the 18-to-24 age group.

Royer surveyed 302 women, 18 to 24 years old, about their beliefs about STD testing. She found barriers to testing that include:

  • The great majority of women (88 percent) were uncomfortable being tested by a male.
  • Most women (79 percent) would prefer being tested by a specialist, not a family doctor.
  • Most women (62 percent) were anxious about being tested.
  • Nearly a third (31 percent) were concerned about STD results appearing in their medical records.

Royer found that many women had additional misconceptions about the STD testing process.

  • STD-related symptoms were the most common reason (99 percent) why a woman would request STD testing; however, STDs are commonly asymptomatic.
  • More than half (58 percent) believed that a health care provider would not conduct STD testing if they tell the provider that they use condoms, suggesting the lack of recognition that some STDs can be transmitted even with condom use.
  • Nearly half (40 percent) inaccurately believed that routine STD testing includes screening for eight STDs including: Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, Trichomoniasis, Syphilis, Human Papillomavirus, Herpes Simplex Virus, Hepatitis B and AIDS/HIV.
  • About one-third of respondents mistakenly thought that infections such as Chlamydia and gonorrhea could be diagnosed solely by visual inspection, without a diagnostic test.
  • One quarter mistakenly thought that a Pap smear could detect Chlamydia (26 percent) and gonorrhea (23 percent).

Health care providers, Royer says, should not assume that the patient understands the sexually transmitted disease (STD) testing process, or feels comfortable leading the discussion about their sexual health or requesting STD testing.

''It may also be helpful for providers to think about their own level of comfort in initiating and/or participating in a sexual health discussion with their patients,'' Royer says.

"Health care providers must be mindful of women's discomfort in discussing their sexual health and consider ways to help reframe this conversation from one of embarrassment to one of empowerment," Royer adds. "Normalizing the sexual-health conversation is the first step in reducing the stigma surrounding sexually transmitted diseases and helping improve women’s knowledge about STDs and STD testing.”

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