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How nurses can ensure women’s sexual and reproductive health is not forgotten during the pandemic

Primary healthcare nurses have a vital role in helping women access essential screening and support

 Many primary healthcare services considered essential in the prevention of illness, including regular breast and sexual and reproductive screenings, have been forced to cease or substantially reduce service provision
Picture: Alamy

In these unprecented times, healthcare in acute care setting has focused on treatment and reducing the transmission of COVID-19.

Healthcare services across the globe have been pushed to breaking point: forced to suspend services to meet the immediate healthcare needs of the population and curb morbidity and mortality rates.

Although this is deemed a necessity during a pandemic, the long-term effect on women’s well-being is unknown.

Women can be extremely vulnerable during times of global crisis

Many primary healthcare services considered essential in the prevention of illness, including regular breast and sexual and reproductive screenings, have been forced to cease or substantially reduce service provision, potentially leaving women without access to regular wellness care.

Many women can be at risk of sexual adversity due to relationship dynamics, lack of access to safer sex measures and contraception, and lack of knowledge associated with sexual and reproductive health.

Women’s sexual and reproductive health is rarely at the forefront of healthcare at the best of times, and is further being overshadowed by the current acute care needs associated with COVID-19.

This is worrying, as women can be extremely vulnerable during times of global crisis.

Sexual violence can accompany crises putting women at heightened risk

Women’s sexual and reproductive health vulnerability is at a heightened risk due to sexual violence that can accompany such crises.

Given lack of access to primary healthcare services and as a result of disruption in world trade, many women may not have access to the regular contraception and medications they require, putting them at greater risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Health promotion education and screening needed more than ever

What can primary healthcare nurses do with regard to these issues?

Primary healthcare nurses are well placed to provide sexual and reproductive healthcare advice to women, either in their homes, via telehealth services or in clinical settings, depending on individual need.

Opportunistic health promotion education and screening are needed now more than ever to curb the increasing rates of STIs and prevent detrimental reproductive and sexual health outcomes.

Yet effective sexual and reproductive care can be hampered by common misperceptions and stereotypes that exist throughout society.

Misperceptions can create barriers to opportunistic assessment and screening

Examples include the view that only identified high risk groups are at risk of STIs and that STIs are associated with promiscuity, and perceiving STIs as being more often contracted in casual sexual encounters rather than established relationships. In fact, all individuals can be at risk of an STI, regardless of circumstances and background.

Such misperceptions can create barriers to opportunistic assessment and screening for women’s sexual and reproductive healthcare. It is important for nurses to assess women for STIs and reproductive needs on an individual basis, and provide care informed by evidence-based practice.

Individuals who experience sexual health adversity during a pandemic may feel isolated and unsure of where to seek help.

Primary healthcare nurse have a vital supportive role

Primary healthcare nurses are at the forefront of care, so it is crucial we offer these individuals support. During the COVID-19 pandemic, access to women’s sexual and reproductive services takes on an extra degree of urgency.

It is vital to prevent sexual adversity and detrimental reproductive health outcomes for women by providing the opportunity for them to express any concerns, and to assess individual needs and facilitate access to care, safe services and contraceptive choice.

All women have the right to have their sexual and reproductive well-being protected, pandemic or not, and primary healthcare nurses can help ensure this protection is provided through individualised holistic care.

Key messages on women at risk

  • Pandemics increase the risk of adverse sexual and reproductive health outcomes
  • Women may have limited access to service provision, particularly in times of crisis
  • Disruption in medication supply can limit contraceptive choice
  • All women can be at risk of adverse sexual and reproductive health outcomes
  • Primary health care nurses have a vital role in promoting sexual and reproductive well-being among all women

Sharne BelliaSharne Bellia is a registered nurse and a simulation centre assistant at Deakin University, Victoria, Australia

 

Leah EastLeah East, @LeahEast1, is associate professor at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia

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