In its August 27th issue, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a paper reviewing primary health care needs of men who have sex with men. NEJM is one of the most prestigious American medical journals. It was home to the first paper detailing HIV infection in gay men. It’s one of the two major medical journals that my class has been urged to read weekly — part of our professional development as medical students.
What kinds of things does this review article recommend? And was it complete? Let’s take a look…
First is the recommendation to discuss a comprehensive and open sexual history. This should not stop at the classic “Are you sexually active?” question, but ask how the patient self identifies (gay, bisexual, etc), the kinds of sexual activity, the forms of protection used and the consistency with which they are used. Why? Because of HIV. Other sexually transmitted infections are a concern as well, but the big fear is HIV. Of all new infections in the United States each year, just under 2/3 are among men who have sex with men.
Other infections to be wary of include gonorrhea and chlamydia, Hepatitis A/B/C, and HPV. There has also been a rise in meningitis infections among gay men, caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis. Of these infections, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, HPV, and meningitis all have vaccines. Where possible, men who have sex with men should be vaccinated against these diseases. HIV and hepatitis C have no vaccine. To prevent them, barriers such as condoms and gloves can be used in sexual encounters and screening tests should be performed. Pre-exposure prophylaxis and antiretroviral therapy for HIV+ individuals can also be helpful for preventing HIV spread, but cannot and should not replace barriers.
Thankfully, this article was not all about the sex lives of men who have sex with men. Too often the lives of gay and bisexual men are distilled down to just their sex lives, particularly because of HIV. The author points out that men who have sex with men should be screened for substance use, depression and anxiety. However, they stop there. While asking about tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs is very important, there are other important aspects of the lives of gay and bisexual men that should be addressed. In particular, I would ask about…
- Social support and living situation, particularly among young gay/bi men and older gay/bi men. Young men are at higher risk for being homeless because of family discrimination. Bullying also happens frequently among young gay/bi men. Older men may have lost their support group during the 1980s-1990s and may be facing the challenge of growing old alone. LGBT elders may face the prospect of going “back into the closet” to receive nursing home care.
- Domestic violence. Same-sex domestic violence is under reported and specific resources are scarce.
- History of assault or violence. Violence against men perceived to be gay/bi can have lifelong health consequences, including post traumatic stress disorder.
- Attempts to self harm or suicide. These must never be ignored, no matter who one is talking to.
- Diet and exercise. Eating disorders are known to occur in gay/bi men. Diet may be poor and exercise may be too low or too high, depending on the individual and his situation.
Yes, screening for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is important. And this article did bring some specific health issues to a large audience. However it’s important not to distill men who have sex with men down to a cluster of diseases. Let this article be a spark for discussion, and not the be-all and end-all of primary care for men who have sex with men.
What do you think? Did I miss anything important in the things I would add?