By Nonie Arora
“In the last seven days, how much difficulty have you had with sexual activity?” Dr. Kevin Weinfurt asks his research participants. A psychologist by training who works in medical research for the the Duke Clinical Research Institute, Weinfurt studies the best ways to measure patient health using self-report.
His most recent collaborative project involved developing a self-report sexual health instrument funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health. Many cancer patients are struggling with serious sexual side effects from their cancer treatments, and we lacked a good self-report scale for sexual function, Weinfurt explained.
Weinfurt and his colleagues ask questions like, “In the past seven days (or 2 weeks, 2 months) how much difficulty have you had with X action?” They are finding that while people prefer to report long time periods and think they are more accurate, they actually can’t recall the specific details over a long period of time. It’s an open question whether people really remember what happened a month ago, Weinfurt said.
In a recent study, they had people participate in a 30-day diary of their sexual activity. Each time they engaged in an activity, they noted how well everything worked, he said. At the end of the 30 days, the researchers checked how well the average daily rating of participants matched what they remembered happening. Weinfurt agrees that asking patients to record their activity could change the activity itself or the quality of their recall, but he says that the scale should still be fairly accurate.
They found that the mood that the person is in when they complete the measure greatly affects what they report. Men in a positive mood recalled having excellent erectile function, even if that was not the case.
Measuring sexual function is important because it affects the quality of life for many patients, Weinfurt said. Many patients are eager to talk about sex-related issues because they feel isolated and alone with some of these struggles.
Overall, sexual health is not widely recognized as a priority by clinicians and clinical researchers and sexual ignorance is more common than we would think, so participants often require education before they can participate in studies successfully, he said.