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Communication
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  1. Susan Quilliam
  1. Writer, Broadcaster, Consultant and Trainer, Cambridge, UK
  1. Correspondence to Ms Susan Quilliam; susan{at}susanquilliam.com; http://www.susanquilliam.com

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Background

Readers may know that we have in the past year suffered the terribly sad and untimely loss of the Journal's Editor-in-Chief of 10 years standing, Dr Anne Szarewski. It was therefore with a mixture of sadness and privilege that I took part in a recent Memorial Lecture Evening held in her honour. The organisers particularly wanted to reflect Anne's commitment to patient–professional dialogue, and asked me to speak on that topic.

Though poignant, the task was in some ways easy. As Anne’s colleague over the years, I witnessed her consummate communication skills. I had also, as her former patient, been on the receiving end of those skills. Anne not only had mastery of the content that should be asked, answered and imparted during a consultation; she also had the magic ingredient of being totally at ease around that content. She was entirely comfortable talking to patients about sexual issues and entirely comfortable listening to their answers; as a result, her patients were, or became, entirely comfortable too.

Hence my memorial presentation focused on a single point with two interdependent aspects. The single point: ‘comfort’. The two aspects: the comfort of the professional and the comfort of the patient. The source: the lessons I learned from Anne and from my own work with, and observation of, other similarly-gifted health professionals

Why might health professionals not feel comfortable?

Let's start with cause. Why, at root, might a health professional feel ill-at-ease around sexual discussion? The prime possibility is, of course, concern for patients. Yes, we live in a world where sex talk is splashed across newspaper front pages, but that very fact may mean increased anxiety about raising personal topics for fear of client reaction. What if the client feels embarrassed, offended, intruded on?

Contrariwise, it is entirely possible – and understandable – for discomfort to be down less to …

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