Clinical placements

What to expect from a placement at a sexual health clinic

Sexual health nurses need to be able to tackle sensitive issues with confidence

Sexual health nurses need to be able to tackle sensitive issues with confidence

In my second year of nurse training I had a four-week elective placement in a genitourinary medicine clinic. I have always been interested in sexual health and family planning and was keen to improve my knowledge and skills by experiencing first-hand what it is like to work in such a specialised area. 

Sexual health nurses have a strong education role. Picture: Tim George

People attending sexual health clinics can experience a range of emotions – from embarrassment and anxiety to fear, guilt and shame. Many don’t want to be seen entering or exiting a sexual health clinic, but anyone taking active steps to look after their sexual health should be applauded.

Out of my comfort zone

During my first week at the clinic, I was way out of my comfort zone listening to the nurses take sexual histories from the patients. But the nurses I observed had excellent communication skills and were highly experienced at asking questions that some people might find intrusive and intimidating.

The nurses understood how difficult it can be for patients to sit opposite a health professional asking them questions about their most intimate moments, such as the last time they had sex, the type of sex, the nationality of their sexual partner and whether they take drugs. The nurses approached these very personal questions in a non-judgemental manner, making the process as comfortable as possible.

The questions are necessary so that the nurse can make sure the relevant tests are carried out to pick up any potential sexual transmitted infections (STIs) the patient may have been exposed to. Knowing the nationality of someone’s sexual partner, for example, helps determine whether the patient needs to be tested for hepatitis B and C, based on their level of risk.

A display of confidence

When I undertook asymptomatic screening for the first time – under supervision from my mentor and with the patient’s consent – I was nervous due to my lack of experience. I tried to hide this from the patient as I took his sexual history as I was aware that the more confident I appeared, the more at ease he would feel.

Later that day, my mentor commended me on how I performed for a first-time consultation, assuring me that it is okay to feel nervous and that my confidence would increase as I gained experience.

She was right; after carrying out several asymptomatic screenings, I became much more confident at discussing sensitive topics with patients and asking the necessary questions. It was rewarding to see people coming into the clinic looking worried but leaving more relieved, knowing that support is always available.

Sexual health nurses don’t just detect and treat STIs and hand out condoms – they have an important therapeutic role. Being diagnosed with an STI can have a profound psychological effect on a patient and nurses can help to ease their anxieties, act as health advisors and counsellors and deliver patient education.

Good rapport

Establishing a good rapport with patients is vital – it encourages trust and helps the patient build confidence in the health professional so that open and honest discussions can take place.

I observed the positive effects of this during a consultation in a clinic that was primarily for the LGBTQ+ community. The nurse put the patient at ease, enabling her to speak freely and honestly so that the most effective treatment could be given.

Their interactions were warm and full of humour, reflecting the patient’s level of confidence in the service. It was impressive to see how the nurse used her knowledge and skills to deliver patient-centred care with compassion, based on mutual trust and respect.

This made me realise that addressing body, mind and spirit through a therapeutic relationship is a win-win in terms of care delivery, with the nurse and patient sharing the benefits.

Coping with an HIV diagnosis

I also witnessed how an HIV specialist nurse helped a newly diagnosed patient come to terms with her diagnosis. The nurse helped her cope with her emotions, discussing her concerns and providing the information she needed.

The nurse also reassured the patient that she would stay in contact and helped her to maintain an optimistic outlook. The nurse was the patient's trusted confidant, and it highlighted how active listening is an essential element of person-centred care.

My four weeks spent with these inspirational sexual health nurses has increased my confidence in my interactions with patients in the clinical setting. Patients take their cues from health professionals so confidence in your abilities is vital in making you appear capable and this will put patients at their ease.

This experience also reinforced the importance of non-judgemental nursing and highlighted how effective communication is a fundamental aspect of delivering high-quality, personalised care.

Chioma Opara is a third-year nursing student at the University of Hertfordshire 

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