Until recently, I never knew sexual medicine was its own specialty. I mean, of course there has to be a field of sexual medicine, since there are medical fields for every other aspect of biological human life, but when I first heard about IntimMedicine Specialists, I had lots of questions. What does a sexual medicine specialist do? What can they offer that a general physician can’t? What could I expect at an appointment, and what would I make an appointment for?
I got to sit down with Dr. Rachel Rubin, an expert in sexual medicine and urologist on staff at IntimMedicine, and ask her some of these questions. She put me at ease right away, asking me about myself with genuine interest before we got to the questions I had for her. I hope you’ll find her answers as enlightening as I did!
Dr. Rubin trained as a urologist at Georgetown University Hospital. Early on she realized that talking about sexual issues was very uncomfortable for patients and even more uncomfortable for the doctors who were trying to train her. “Research has shown that medical professionals don’t do a very good job of bringing sexual issues up with their patients, often because they feel there is a lack of time and expertise to be able to follow up on the questions they get asked,” she said. Dr. Rubin found that she was not afraid to ask people questions about sexual issues, and her interest in treating sexual dysfunction only grew. She completed a sexual medicine fellowship in San Diego and then joined the team at IntimMedicine.
“Sexual medicine is a relatively unknown field made up of many different types of providers who believe strongly in quality of life and improving the sexual health of their patients and their partners,” said Dr. Rubin. “We see people with erectile dysfunction, low libido, penile curvature, pelvic pain, urinary incontinence, and hormone issues, among other things.”
Many times, Dr. Rubin said, patients and their doctors are not only uncomfortable discussing sexual health—they also don’t have time in a 15-minute visit to address such intimate issues. “We don’t see 50 patients a day. We spend a lot of time with our patients, and I pride myself on being able to work within the medical community to build a multidisciplinary team to help each individual patient and couple. Sometimes there needs to be medical treatments or surgeries, and sometimes we need specialized physical therapists to be involved. We often team up with mental health professionals as well, because no one ever taught us how to talk about sex and getting a ‘coach’ to help with that is extremely important. Sexual medicine is very much a ‘team sport’ in terms of figuring out which team members need to be involved with each individual case – it’s not a one-size-fits-all model.”
Another member of that team? The patient’s partner. Dr. Rubin encourages patients who feel comfortable doing so to bring their partners to appointments.
“It is not uncommon that I see a patient and then their significant other comes to see me later, realizing it ‘takes two to tango,’” she said. “Oftentimes you have to think of each patient in the context of a couple, and it’s important to help both people.”
Maybe you have something that is bothering you about your sexual health, but you’ve got too much else going on or you’d rather not think about it, and definitely not talk about it. I asked Dr. Rubin what she would say to people who keep putting off seeing a sexual medicine specialist. “Quality of life is incredibly important,” she said. “Focusing on yourself and your health as a couple is valuable.” Dr. Rubin went on to emphasize that sexual health is closely connected to general health. She also added that “focusing on your sexual health may actually benefit many other parts of your life.” For example, “Erectile dysfunction can be a sign of early cardiovascular disease.”
“Before I see a new patient, I always have a screening phone call with them first, just to make sure it’s a good fit for them before they make an appointment,” Dr. Rubin told me when I asked her what people could expect from an appointment with her. “When people come into my office, they sit across from me, fully clothed, and we just have a conversation. I spend a lot of time showing them anatomical diagrams and explaining everything we’re going to do before we ever do an exam or procedure. Nothing invasive ever happens without a full discussion and without the opportunity for lots of questions to be asked.”
Dr. Rubin’s tone became both more impassioned and gentler when I asked her to name one thing she wished people understood about sexual dysfunction. It was clear to me that she cared deeply about this when she answered. “People are often afraid to admit that they have a problem, because they’re so afraid that it means there is something different or abnormal about them. I understand that it can provoke a lot of anxiety to just come out and say ‘I have a problem, and it’s sexual,’ even to a doctor. Nobody taught any of us how to talk about sex to our partners, or to our doctors, so it can feel very isolating, but the truth is all of these issues are so incredibly common. After speaking with me, my patients are very comforted in knowing that they’re not alone and that there is help.”
As we ended our chat, Dr. Rubin said, “This is all we do,” referring to the team at IntimMedicine Specialists. “Our patients have access to all of the expertise we represent and receive very individualized care. We’ll take the time to get to know you and help you focus on your sexual health.”
So now, I have a question for you: why are you waiting to start working on your sexual health?
Call 202.293.1000 to make an appointment with IntimMedicine Specialists in Washington, D.C.
Also: follow Dr. Rubin on twitter @rachelsrubin1 and the IntimMedicine team @intimmedicine