My Patient’s Having an Affair and Has an STI. 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 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, 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.”

What Do The Experts Suggest?

Caring for spouses or two partners when an STI is discovered can be challenging for physicians, particularly in small towns where many people know each other, said Kenneth Goodman, PhD, founder and director of the Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at the University of Miami.

“This can be a real challenge for family physicians and others in a small town,” he said. “If you discover one partner is positive for a sexually transmitted infection and the other is negative, then you’ve got a challenge to manage. The way to do that is to start with moral persuasion, namely you tell your patient, ‘You really need to disclose this. Because when he or she gets it, chances are, you’re going to be the prime suspect.’ ”

Dowler, who practices in an STI clinic, said she once diagnosed a sexually transmitted infection in a patient who was married to one of Dowler’s coworkers. The patient would not allow the partner to be notified, she said. In this case, Dowler practiced expedited partner therapy (EPT), the clinical practice of treating sex partners of patients diagnosed with chlamydia or gonorrhea by giving the patient prescriptions or medications to take to the partner without having first examined the partner. The practice is legal to some extent in all states, Dowler said, but some states have different rules about how the practice can be utilized. 

Physicians are obligated to report communicable diseases to their local health department, Goodman said. The health department would then do contract tracing and be responsible for conveying the STI diagnosis to any relevant parties. Even so, Goodman said physicians have a moral obligation to strongly encourage patients to divulge the infection to their partner.

“Doctors should work on being persuasive to change behavior,” he said. “Tell your patients to do the right thing and follow up with them. You should tell patients they have a responsibility to disclose a sexually transmitted infection to any of their partners and a responsibility not to have unprotected sex. Doctors can be very powerful advocates for that.”

Dowler said if she is treating two partners, and one is diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection, she generally asks the patient for their consent to disclose the diagnosis to the partner. She ensures a witness, usually a nurse, is present when she asks. If consent is refused, Dowler guides her treatment to be as protective as possible, she said. A helpful resource for patients is, a website that sends an anonymous text or email about infection exposure and provides guidance on treatment locations and options.

Of course, if the sexually transmitted infection is HIV, another set of rules apply. As of 2021, 35 states have laws that criminalize HIV exposure. Laws vary, but many hold patients criminally liable if they knowingly expose another party to HIV. Many states and some cities also have ‘partner notification’ laws that require health providers to disclose an HIV diagnosis to the patient’s sex partners or to report the names of sex partners to the health department, if known. 

However, case law on a physician’s duty to warn is mixed, and doctors’ responsibility for STI reporting and partner notification is determined by individual states. Making matters more complex is the fact that some states have recently changed their HIV control requirements, Dowler said. In North Carolina for example, patients living with HIV who have been virally suppressed for 6 months and who are adherent to medications, are no longer in violation of the control measure if they do not disclose their HIV diagnosis to sex partners or if they don’t wear a condom.

“This means physicians would not have to report a virally suppressed, adequately treated HIV-positive patient who is having unprotected sex or take measures to inform any known sex partners of the diagnosis,” she said. “The landscape is constantly changing so physicians have to be vigilant about their state public health statutes. It’s a tricky area. It takes an already complicated topic and makes it just a little more complicated.”

Consider Drafting a Policy

It’s a good idea to have a policy in place at your practice that addresses such ethical dilemmas before they occur, says Michael Heitt, PsyD, a clinical psychologist on the faculty of Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, and a member of the Maryland Psychological Association’s Ethics Committee. Heitt developed a model of ethical reasoning called CLEAR Lenses, which stands for Clinical, Legal, Ethical, Administrative, and Risk management. The approach encourages clinicians to identify often competing factors in the decision-making process before choosing a course of action to take.

In the situation of an unfaithful spouse who contracted an STI for example, the physician should consider clinical issues such as the medical likelihood the unaware partner has the STI, and legal issues such as maintaining the confidentiality of all patient information and possible mandated reporting of STI data, Heitt said. The lenses overlap since confidentiality is also a key ethical issue, and other ethical issues involve the balance of helping the unaware spouse and not harming the infected spouse, he explained. Administrative issues might include how medical records are maintained and whether the physician documents information about patients’ family members in the medical record, while risk management elements may include informed consent, documentation, and consultation. 

“So, if the physician has a policy about how such matters are dealt with, and patients are informed about this when they come to the practice, this can guide the physician much more easily through this sticky situation,” Heitt said. “Documentation of the decision-making process in the medical record demonstrates the physician’s thought process should it ever be challenged in the future, and consultation with peers (while disguising the identity of the patients, of course) sets a foundation of what a ‘reasonable standard’ might be in such situations.”

There is also the conflict-avoidant approach, Heitt said, in which the physician could perform “routine” STI testing if the unaware spouse was due for an appointment soon.

“But of course, this is far from avoiding any conflict; it just kicks the can down the road as there will surely be conflict — and plenty of confusion — if the wife tests positive for an STI,” he said. “In most situations, it is usually best to be brave, do the hard work upfront, and deal with the tough situation then, rather than trying to avoid the probable inevitable difficult conversation.”

As for the psychiatrist who was treating the cheating HIV-positive partner, the physician ultimately convinced both patients to come in for a couple’s session. The doctor allowed for a 2-hour timeframe to encourage discussion of any conflicts and unresolved issues, the psychiatrist said. After several more couple’s sessions, it was apparent the HIV-positive partner wanted out of the relationship, according to the psychiatrist’s account. The physician referred them to a couples’ therapist for ongoing treatment.

“During that same session, the HIV positive partner disclosed his recent behaviors and, as a result, they decided not to have further sexual contact until they could explore this further in therapy,” the psychiatrist wrote. “At last communication the couple decided to end the relationship, and the HIV negative partner remained negative.”

What would you do in a similar situation? Which approach do you think is best? Please post your thoughts in our Comments section.

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