Clinical Guidelines for Family Physicians

Family physicians can help achieve national goals on STIs


Several updates in the strategy for prevention of and treatment of sexually transmitted infections were recently published in the United States.

Among these are the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ first “Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) National Strategic Plan for the United States,” which has a strong encompassing vision.

Dr. Santina J. Wheat, program director of Northwestern’s McGaw Family Medicine residency program at Humboldt Park, Chicago

Dr. Santina J.G. Wheat

“The United States will be a place where sexually transmitted infections are prevented and where every person has high-quality STI prevention care, and treatment while living free from stigma and discrimination. The vision includes all people, regardless of age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, geographic location, or socioeconomic circumstance,” the new HHS plan states.1

Family physicians can and should play important roles in helping our country meet this plan’s goals particularly by following two important updated clinical guidelines, one from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and another from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This strategic plan includes the following five overarching goals with associated objectives:

  • Prevent New STIs.
  • Improve the health of people by reducing adverse outcomes of STIs.
  • Accelerate progress in STI research, technology, and innovation.
  • Reduce STI-related health disparities and health inequities.
  • Achieve integrated, coordinated efforts that address the STI epidemic.1

In my opinion, family physicians have important roles to play in order for each of these goals to be achieved.Unfortunately, there are approximately 20 million new cases of STIs each year, and the U.S. has seen increases in the rates of STIs in the past decade.

“Sexually transmitted infections are frequently asymptomatic, which may delay diagnosis and treatment and lead persons to unknowingly transmit STIs to others,” according to a new recommendation statement from the USPSTF.2 STIs may lead to serious health consequences for patients, cause harms to a mother and infant during pregnancy, and lead to cases of cancer among other concerning outcomes. As such, following the HHS new national strategic plan is critical for us to address the needs of our communities.

Preventing new STIs

Family physicians can be vital in achieving the first goal of the plan by helping to prevent new STIs. In August 2020, the USPSTF updated its guideline on behavioral counseling interventions to prevent STIs. In my opinion, the USPSTF offers some practical improvements from the earlier version of this guideline.

The task force provides a grade B recommendation that all sexually active adolescents and adults at increased risk for STIs be provided with behavioral counseling to prevent STIs. The guideline indicates that behavioral counseling interventions reduce the likelihood of those at increased risk for acquiring STIs.2

The 2014 guideline had recommended intensive interventions with a minimum of 30 minutes of counseling. Many family physicians may have found this previous recommendation impractical to implement. These updated recommendations now include a variety of interventions, such as those that take less than 30 minutes.

Although interventions with more than 120 minutes of contact time had the most effect, those with less than 30 minutes still demonstrated statistically significant fewer acquisitions of STIs during follow-up. These options include in-person counseling, and providing written materials, websites, videos, and telephone and text support to patients. These interventions can be delivered directly by the family physician, or patients may be referred to other settings or the media interventions.

The task force’s updated recommendation statement refers to a variety of resources that can be used to identify these interventions. Many of the studies reviewed for this guideline were conducted in STI clinics, and the guideline authors recommended further studies in primary care as opportunities for more generalizability.

In addition to behavioral counseling for STI prevention, family physicians can help prevent STIs in their patients through HPV vaccination and HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP provision) within their practices. As the first contact for health care for many patients, we have an opportunity to significantly impact this first goal of prevention.


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