My patient is having an affair and has an STI. I’m treating both partners. What would you do?


A psychiatrist was treating a couple individually, one of whom was HIV-positive. During a session, the infected partner revealed he was having sex with other men outside the relationship and not using safe sex practices.

“He was being treated for major depression and anxiety at the time,” explained the anonymous psychiatrist. “I strongly encouraged him to tell his partner, but he was scared of doing so. He stated that they had not been using safe sex practices between the two of them, but he was willing to start at that point.”

At a session with the HIV-negative partner, the psychiatrist inquired about the couple’s current sex practices. The HIV-negative partner reported no changes and said the two continued to have sex without condoms, said the psychiatrist, who shared the experience in Medscape’s Ethics 2020 Survey open-ended questions.

“My dilemma now was whether or not to inform him about his partner’s ‘extracurricular sex behavior,’ the psychiatrist said. “Since he was now at greater risk of contracting HIV, I felt compelled to do something to intervene.”

What would you do in this situation?

Hearing about infidelity while treating two family members is a bothersome ethical quandary for many physicians, according to responses from the Ethics 2020 Report. When asked to share their toughest ethical dilemma, one internist for example, wrote, “I have couples as patients, and it is very challenging if they reveal infidelity or separate/divorce; I cannot reveal info to the spouse, but it makes me very uncomfortable caring for both.” Similarly, an obstetrician-gynecologist wrote about her experience counseling patients who reveal extramarital affairs.

“Women confide deeply with their gynecologist, and although I was not successful in rescuing 100% of them, the majority accepted my counseling and saved their marriages,” the anonymous ob/gyn wrote. “In every case in which my patient was willing to resume her marital relationship, I always ensured that she advised her spouse of the infidelity, and the couple was referred to a qualified provider for marriage counseling.”

When a sexually transmitted infection (STI) comes into play however, physicians describe a deeper level of internal conflict. A family physician wrote her top ethical dilemma was “Cheating spouses and STIs: how do you get the other spouse treated?” An ob-gyn stated that, “disclosure of STI status in couples when this may indicate infidelity,” was a frequent ethical issue in her specialty. Commenters on Medscape’s recent story, “The Secret I’ll Take to my Grave: Doc Reveals,” also raised the uncomfortable topic. One physician recalled a deaf female patient who requested in writing not to test for syphilis and not to discuss the issue with her husband. “Patient knew that she had syphilis, but she did not want her husband to know,” the physician wrote.

It’s not uncommon for physicians to encounter such scenarios when treating long-term couples, especially in the digital era, said Shannon Dowler, MD, chief medical officer for North Carolina Medicaid and a family physician at the Buncombe County STI Clinic.

“This is definitely something I think we see more of in our age of ‘hookup apps’ and easier access to casual sexual connections than we did before,” said Dr. Dowler, who serves on the CDC Advisory Committee on HIV, Viral Hepatitis, and STD Prevention and Treatment.

The topic is particularly timely because of the pandemic’s impact on STI testing and the expected rise in sexually transmitted infection rates over the next year, Dr. Dowler notes.

“People weren’t necessarily coming in for routine screening or testing during the pandemic because they didn’t want to take a chance on being exposed to COVID,” she said. “But also, the reagent used for testing for certain types of transmitted infections was in short supply because they use that same reagent for the COVID test. We had shortages of STI testing in many parts of the country. I expect what we’re going to see over the next year are a lot of diagnoses that were missed during the pandemic and a lot of asymptomatic spread.”


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