Sexual Health Education for SCI Clinicians

SCI can have consequences on many different domains, including sexual health. A variety of health professionals (e.g., psychologists, physical therapists, nurses, physicians, sexual health clinicians) may be involved in treating these domains, as well as discussing the impact of SCI on aspects of sexual function. In fact, research shows that patients expect their health care professionals to bring up sexuality and sexual health, but health care professionals can be reluctant to do so because of their lack of knowledge, fear of offending the patient, or discomfort in asking questions that address sexual concerns (Althof et al. 2013).

People with disabilities often express their sexual health concerns to the people they feel most comfortable with, so it is recommended that all persons working with people with spinal cord injury understand the effects of SCI on sexual function (Biering-Sorenson et al. 2013, p. 613). Education and support to health professionals is critical to ensure that these professionals are able to comfortably and knowledgably address relevant patient concerns about sexual health.

Author Year;
Research Design
Total Sample Size
Methods Outcome

Fronek et al. 2005; Australia
RCT PEDro=6 Level 1 N=89
2 year follow-up N=37

Population: Staff from an SCI rehab service; Treatment group (n=44): 31 nurses, 1 medical practitioner, 6 allied health staff, 6 community staff; Control group (n=45): 32 nurses, 2 medical practitioners, 5 allied health staff, 6 community staff; Previous sexuality training: yes (n=25), no (n=50); Previous SCI sexuality training: yes (n=18), no (n=57).
2 year follow-up population: 25 from treatment group, 12 from control group; nurses (n=23), medical practitioners (n=1), allied health staff (n=3), community staff (n=10).
Methods: Staff members were randomized to treatment or control groups across disciplines. A consumer driven sexuality training program was developed then delivered in a series of 1-day workshops to the treatment group. Focus groups and written questionnaires were conducted at the 2 yr follow-up.
Outcome Measures: KCAASS (Knowledge, Comfort, Approach and Attitudes towards Sexuality Scale); focus group discussion at 2- year follow-up with written feedback to open- ended questions on the KCAASS.

  1. Significant improvement in all domains (knowledge, comfort, approach, and attitude) for treatment group compared to control group.
  2. Significant changes in all domains (knowledge, comfort, approach, and attitude) were maintained at 3-month follow-up.

At 2 year follow up:

  1. No significant between-group differences in knowledge, comfort, or attitudes (training of the control group at the 4 month period equalized the groups).
  2. Significant within group changes in the treatment group on knowledge, comfort, and approach.
  3. Significant change over time in both treatment and control groups on attitude subscale.
Effect Sizes: Forest plot of standardized mean differences (SMD ± 95%C.I.) as calculated from pre- and post-intervention data

Sawyer et al.
1983; USA
Level 1
Population: 22 graduates in rehabilitation
Methods: participants were randomized to
experimental (micro-counselling) and control
groups (didactic lecture) to test the effectiveness
of this training approach in counsellors’ ability to
respond appropriately to sexual concerns
expressed by SCI women. Micro-counselling
group (n=11) was shown a videotape modelling
specific counselling skills followed by
discussion, demonstration, and role-play.
Didactic lecture group (n=11) had traditional
lecture and classroom discussion.
Outcome Measures: micro-counselling
interaction rating scale (developed using the
same response cues that appeared on the video
  1. A main training effect was found when comparing the experimental and control groups, and in regard to pre- vs. post-testing a significant main effect was found.
  2. The micro-counselling group differed significantly in the pre-and post-test.
  3. On the post-test the groups differed significantly with the largest gain demonstrated by the micro-counselling group and little change demonstrated by the didactic lecture group.
Simpson et al.
2006; New Zealand
Controlled trial with
pre- and postevaluation
Level 2
N = 99
Participants: 74 rehabilitation staff and a
control group of 25 other staff members.
Treatment: Two workshops were held at major
rehabilitation centres in New Zealand (control
group did not attend).
Outcomes: The Sex Attitude Scale, as well as a
knowledge test, a self-rating inventory of skills
and clinical activity, and a single-item measure
of the degree of staff comfort.
  1. Workshop participants showed significant increases in knowledge, skills and comfort after the workshop, and a number of these gains were maintained at the six-month follow-up.
  2. There was an associated increase in reported staff activity (for the treatment group only) addressing patient/client sexual health concerns in the six months to follow-up, compared to a similar time period preceding the workshop.
Fronek et al. 2011; Australia
Follow-Up study
Level 4
Population: 37 of the original 89 participants
from Fronek et al. 2005 who completed all three
previous assessments. 23 nurses, 1 medical
practitioner, 3 allied health staff and 10
community staff.
Treatment: None – follow-up of trainees in
Fronek et al. 2005.v
Outcomes: The KCAASS was administered
approximately 4 months later (no significant
differences re: scores on the KCAASS between
those who participated at 2 year follow-up and
those who did not). Focus group – participants
were asked to comment about the benefits and
challenges of the training.
  1. For the experimental group, 2 year follow-up scores did not differ significantly from scores at post-training or 3 month follow-up for Knowledge, Comfort and Approach subscales. Attitude scores were significantly lower at 2 year follow-up than at post-training.
  2. For the control group, Knowledge and Attitude scores were significantly higher at 2 year follow-up than at 3-month follow-up.
  3. From the focus group, participants said that the multidisciplinary rehabilitation setting ‘helped to understand views of others’ and ‘foster respect of other team members’. It was suggested that ‘self-directed learning packages’ or a ‘combination of learning options’ would be useful to update staff.
Burch 2008; USA
Level 4
Population: 402 health care professionals who
provided services to SCI patients. PTs (n=176),
OTs (n=93), speech therapists (n=46), PT
assistants (n=22), OT assistants (n=8), nurses
(n=50), physicians (n=7).
Methods: A pre-intervention questionnaire to
assess levels of knowledge, attitudes, and selfefficacy providing care to SCI persons who may
be LGBT. Videotape for health care
professionals on providing services to LGBT
persons was shown and a post-briefing
diversity-training questionnaire was given.
Outcome Measures: pre- and post-intervention
questionnaires on knowledge, attitudes, and
  1. 317 strongly agreed that watching the videotape increased their confidence levels in providing services for people who may be LGBT.
  2. Effect of the training program:
    1. Increased knowledge: Strongly agree (SA; 18.2%), Moderately agree (MA; 63.9%), Agree (A; 14.9%), Moderately disagree (MD; 3%)
    2. Increased Attitudes: SA (24.6%), MA (65.9%), A (9%), MD (0.5%)
    3. Increased Self-efficacy: SA (78.9%), MA (12.9%), A (6.7%), MD (1.5%)
Tepper 1997; USA
Level 4
Population: 18 staff who worked ≥50% of the
time in SCI rehabilitation; nurses (n=10),
psychologists (n=2), OTs (n=1), physiatrists
(n=1); Time working in SCI rehab: 9 months to
22 years.
Methods: An interdisciplinary continuing
education and training curriculum addressing
the provision of comprehensive sexual health
care for professionals was implemented as a 3-
day experiential, massed-learning pilot
Outcome Measures: For evaluating the
workshop: 1) matched pre- and post-test
(summative evaluation) 2) participant journals,
3) participant observation by research assistant,
4) Objective Structured Clinical Examination
(OSCE), 5) post-workshop program evaluation
(formative evaluation) 6) 5 month follow-up
(questionnaire and phone interview).
  1. The workshop significantly increased tested knowledge of the sexual response cycle and the possible effect of SCI, staff self-assessed comfort, knowledge, and skill from pre- to post-test.
  2. Behavioural changes reported postworkshop:
    1. Incorporated some definable change in provision of sexual health care tobpatients (yes=17, attributed: 1.65)
    2. Sought additional information about effects of SCI on sexual function (yes=16, no=1, attributed: 1.65)
    3. Showed greater comfort in talking with patients about their sexual questions/concerns (yes=17, attributed: 1.59)
    4. Improved skills in providing comprehensive sexual health care (yes=17, attributed: 1.82)
    5. Increased skills in identifying sexual concerns (yes=15, no=2, attributed: 1.31)
Cole & Stevens
1975; USA
Level 4
Population: 199 SCI professionals; counsellors
(n=142), social workers (n=9), nurses (n=8),
psychologists (n=7), OTs (n=6), physicians
(n=2), speech therapists (n=1), clergy (n=1),
other (n=23).
Methods: Creation and implementation of a 1-
day seminar on sexual function in SCI for
rehabilitation professionals.
Outcome Measures: questionnaires pre- and
  1. Did sexual counselling with their clients:
    1. No (n=138), Yes (n=61)
    2. Inappropriate to their work (n=14)
    3. 50 expected to do sexual counselling, 13 of them not doing it
  2. Post-seminar evaluation (n=132):
    1. Beneficial/somewhat beneficial (95%)
    2. Not beneficial (5%)
    3. Harmful/somewhat harmful (3%)
    4. Not harmful (97%)
    5. 87% felt a program like the seminar should be part of professional training for rehab professionals, 13% had reservations/opposed the idea.
Held et al. 1975; USA
Level 4
N= 95
Population: 1st Sample = 76 people with
SCI/their partners; 2nd Sample = 119
Rehabilitation professionals; 3rd Sample = 51
Rehabilitation professionals). 51% men, 49%
Treatment: Sexual attitude and Sexual
counselling workshops for spinal cord injured
adults, their partners and rehabilitation
professionals. Slides, films, panels and
large/small group discussions. The 3rd
workshop (sexual history taking/sexual
counseling) included an interview demonstration
and practice for participants in small groups.
Outcome Measures: 1
st sample – (post- only)
asked participants did they enjoy, learn, and
would they recommend. 2nd sample – (pre-post)
asked about involvement in sexual counseling
and education and how the seminar affected.
3rd sample – survey re: attitudes towards sexual
activities completed before and 6 weeks after
the workshop.
  1. 1st sample – 96% were glad they attended, 92.1% thought the workshop was worthwhile, 82.8% stated that they personally benefitted, 90.8% would recommend the program to others.
  2. 2nd sample – 97.3% reported that the workshop had given them ideas.
  3. 3rd sample –67.3% frequently had the opportunity to do sex counseling, 100% thought that they should, but only 51% did it sometimes. Only 18% felt effective, 54% felt uncomfortable, and 4% felt ineffective. 63% said they had no specific training and limited experience; 4% said they were trained and experienced.
  4. 3rd sample – 96% said the workshop had been a good learning experience. Participants were significantly more accepting towards 4 of the 9 listed sexual behaviors and who they were appropriate for after the workshop.
Milligan &
Petchers 1988;
Level 4
N =609
Participants: 609 participants completed pretest and post-test questionnaires (response rate
= 73.5%). 123 participants answered the followup telephone survey (15%). Trainees included
physicians, nurse practitioners, clinic assistants,
social workers, educators, and residential
program managers.
Treatment: 37 different workshops on aspects
of sexual health, including one workshop
specifically on issues re: the physically disabled.
Outcomes: Pre/post-test measuring knowledge
and skills. Follow-up interviews, asking whether
workshops resulted in improved knowledge and
skills on the job and how they
used/disseminated information on the job.
  1. Participants significantly improved knowledge and skills after series of training workshops.
  2. Specific workshop on sexuality and the physically disabled – participants showed no significant difference in knowledge or skills after training.
  3. Follow up questionnaire indicated that the majority of respondents: gained new knowledge, improved understanding, dealt better with problems, informally shared information, and had the opportunity to use what was learned, but took no action and delivered no different services based on attending the workshops.
Giannoten et al.
2006; Netherlands
Level 4
Population: 302 rehabilitation professionals
attended at least one training session.
Participants were nurses (36.2%) physicians
(15.1%), occupational therapists (14.3%),
physical therapists (13.6%), psychologists and
social workers (9.3%), speech/language
therapists (2.5%), and other disciplines (8.9%).
Their (mean) experience in rehabilitation was
9.1 years and 11.2% had attended post-study
courses in sexology before.
Treatment: The training consisted of seven
modules (based on the PLISSIT model) and was
offered in six sessions of three hours. Lectures,
discussions, role-playing, and simulation of
cases/team meetings, and homework consisting
of talking about sex with their rehabilitation
Outcomes: Each participant completed 3
questionnaires (pre-, post-, and 3-4 months after
training) and a Dutch translation of the
  1. All professional groups said that they needed training in sexuality (Doctors, 71%; Nurses 92%; PTs/OTs/SLPs 71%).
  2. Mean general opinion of the training was between ‘moderately good’ and ‘good’, and only a small percentage of participants expressed a negative opinion on the usefulness of the training.
  3. Knowledge, recognizing problems and communication skills all improved significantly after training, and improvements were generally maintained at follow-up.
Post et al. 2008; Netherlands
Level 4
Participants: 283 Participants were nurses
(35.2%), physicians (14.3%), physical therapists
(14.0%), occupational therapists (13.7%),
psychologists and social workers (10.2%), and
other disciplines (12.6%).
Mean age was 39 years, 83% were female and
their mean experience in rehabilitation was 9.1
years (same sample as Giannoten, 2006).
Treatment: The training for physicians,
psychologists, and social workers was three
units of 3 h each and for the other disciplines
two units of 3 h each. The training used
exercises on actively ‘‘talking sex’’ and roleplaying exercises with volunteer patients.
Outcomes: Each participant completed 3
questionnaires (pre-, post-, and 3-4 months after
training) and a Dutch translation of the KCAASS
(same measures as Gianotten et al. 2006).
  1. Multivariate testing showed significant differences between disciplines and significant improvement between the first and second measurement.
  2. Physicians improved on all KCAASS subscales, the group of other disciplines improved in Knowledge, Comfort, and Approach, Occupational therapists improved in Knowledge and Approach, psychologists/social workers and nurses improved only in Knowledge, and physical therapists did not show any change at all.
  3. 88.8% had not taken courses in sexology before this training; despite this 81.7% of participants felt that discussing sexual concerns with patients was part of their job (Range – 99.5% physicians- 60.5% physical therapists).
  4. The duration of the training was judged ‘‘good’’ by 76.5% of participants and the possibilities to apply the lessons learned were judged positively (moderately, good or very good) by most groups.
Pieters et al. 2017; Netherlands
Level 4
N = 74
Participants: 74 participants completed the preand post-test questionnaires. Participants
included 13 medical (doctors, nurses, physician
assistants), 13 psychosocial (5 psychologists, 7
social workers, 1 chaplain), and 48 paramedical
(24 physiotherapists, 18 occupational therapists,
one cognitive therapist, one dietician, four
speech therapists).
Treatment: Training, based on the PLISSIT
model, consisted of six half-day sessions and
multiple modules, including some disabilityspecific sexual health information. Interactive
teaching, exercises, role-playing, presentation of
sexual aids, and information delivery.
Outcomes: A pretest-posttest design used the
Dutch adaptation of the KCAASS, as well as two
questionnaires where participants would rate the
number of times sexual issues were discussed
and how good they were at recognizing and
treating problems.
  1. The number of times that sexuality was discussed with patients increased significantly after the training. Rehabilitation staff received more questions from patients, initiated speaking about sexuality with their patients, and discussed sexual health during meetings much more frequently.
  2. After finishing the training, participants reported that they “recognized sexual problems” more frequently (36.4% to 59.7%), “gave permission to talk about sexual problems with patients” (66.2%), “gave advice or specific suggestions” (31.2%), and “exchanged relevant information with colleagues” (29.9% to 48.3%), but that there was still no difference in the number of referrals.
  3. Staff’s knowledge, attitude and skills and comfort increased significantly after receiving the training, as measured by the KCAASS.
  4. There were no differences between professional groups, except PTs/OTs who initiated sexuality discussions compared to the other groups.
Chubon 1981; USA
Level 4
Participants: 15 students from graduate
programs and rehabilitation agencies in the
Greater Pittsburgh area, representing the fields
of rehabilitation counseling, special education,
social work, counselor education, psychology,
and physical therapy.
Treatment: A full 2 credit elective course
including broad range of topics re: Sexual
Health, including the Impact of Spinal Cord
Injury. Information delivery, modeling, small
group/class discussions, role play, films, all
intended to aid with desensitizing students.
Outcomes: State-Trait Anxiety Inventory Form,
Irvine Sexual Attitude and Knowledge Inventory,
Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale,
Personal logbooks, a course evaluation survey,
and a multiple choice exam for testing
  1. There were significant increases in knowledge levels and in sexual attitudes toward greater acceptance, both with regard to sexuality in general and of handicapped persons.
  2. The students indicated that the course content met their needs and was of value to them both professionally and personally.
  3. No differences in pre-course scores, and attitudes or knowledge levels, between sexes or married/single students, between age and any of the experimental measure scores. Anxiety and social desirability scores were all inside of the norm.
Mims et al. 1974; USA
Level 4
N = 143
Participants: 143 Medical, Nursing and
Health/Social sciences students at graduate and
undergraduate level.
Treatment: 5 days of didactic sessions, films,
role plays, and small group discussions on
topics of human sexuality including sex and the
Outcome: Sex Knowledge and Attitude test
  1. The total group Knowledge scores and 3 of 4 Attitudinal subscales increased significantly from pre- to post.
  2. Med students increased Knowledge scores and 2 of 4 Attitude scales; Nursing students increased Knowledge scores and 3 of 4 Attitude scales; Other students increased Knowledge scores and 1 of 4 Attitude scales.
  3. There were no differences between Medical and Nursing students on Knowledge or Attitude scores.
Cohen et al. 1994; Canada
Level 4
N = 164
Participants: 164 Undergraduate students in 4
programs at McMaster University – Medicine,
Nursing, PT and OT – completed the course and
both pre-and post-tests.
Treatment: A two-day interprofessional
workshop in sexuality using lectures,
audiovisuals, and small group discussions.
Outcome: The Sexual Opinion Survey (SOS)
and a 46 item sexual knowledge test were
administered pre- and post-workshop.
  1. No differences between 4 groups in either pre- or post-test scores.
  2. Total group and Nursing group improved attitudes and comfort significantly from preto post-training.
  3. Total group, Nursing and Physiotherapy showed significant increases in knowledge from pre- to post-training.
Cohen et al. 1996; Canada
Follow-up (Post
evaluation 18
months later)
Level 4
N = 76
Participants: 76 students from the OT/PT,
Nursing, or Medical programs that originally took
part in Cohen 1994.
Treatment: None (18 month follow-up to Cohen
et al. 1994).
Outcome: 3 questionnaires to assess Sexual
Attitude, Comfort and Knowledge (same
questionnaires as Cohen 1994), plus asking
participants if they had participated in any
additional education re: sexual health.
  1. Significant gains reported from postworkshop to follow-up on Knowledge and Attitude scores.
  2. Participants reporting additional sexuality education showed significantly higher Attitude scores from post-workshop to 18 month follow-up.
Hay et al. 1996; Canada
Follow-up (Post
Evaluation 18
months later)
Level 4
N = 30
Participants: 30 Occupational and Physical
Therapy students. 90% female with an average
age 25 (some of the same participants from
Cohen et al. 1994).
Treatment: None (follow-up to workshop
reported in Cohen et al. 1994).
Outcomes: Same measures on Sexual
Attitudes, Comfort, and Knowledge as assessed
during original workshop collected at 18 month
  1. No differences between OT and PT students on any of the three measures (attitudes, comfort, knowledge) in the 18 month followup results.
  2. No differences between the 11 students who reported additional sexuality education on any of the three measures.
  3. There were no changes from the post workshop results to the 18 month follow-up.
Neistadt 1986;
Level 5
N = 288
Participants: 288 students from Boston school
of OT at Tufts university who have taken the
sexuality counseling module.
Treatment: Three sessions of 3-hour each
devoted to the knowledge areas and skills re:
sexual health including the ways in which
various disabilities might influence sexual
Outcomes: Post-course evaluation
  1. 100% of the students felt the module was a pertinent part of their academic program at BSOT. Many reported using the information and skills they gained in the module during their fieldwork experiences.
  2. (For 48 students taking the course 1 year prior to publication) 100% met course objectives in Anatomy, Comfortableness in discussion, Development, and Sexual Acting out; 95.8% met objectives in Counseling strategies and the Sexual response cycle,
  3. 89.6% met objectives in Sexuality and Disability, and 68.8% met course objectives in Neurological control.
Cole, 1973; USA
Level 5
N= 55
Population: 55 participants, 20% paraplegic,
20% quadriplegic; 15% spouses of people with
SCI; 45% = health professionals/friends of
participants. Age = 16-59 (range). Time since
injury – Range = 2-15+5 years; (90% more than
3 years since injury).
Treatment: A 2-day program for people with
SCI and able-bodied persons was developed to
deal with sexual attitudes. Slides, speakers,
panels and films were sequenced to introduce
progressively more explicit and anxiety-evoking
sexual material (e.g., pornography), as well as
specific content re: aspects of human sexuality
of the spinal cord injured person.
Outcomes: Pre-workshop questionnaire
assessed sexual knowledge, attitudes, and
behaviors of the participants. A post-training
evaluation asked if participants were glad they
attended, and if it had been helpful or harmful.
  1. 1. 90% of the paraplegics and 80% of the quadriplegics indicated that never or seldom did the hospital staff initiate discussions re: the sexual implications of spinal cord injury.
  2. 50% of male/female quadriplegics to 87% of able-bodied males agreed or strongly agreed that an active sex life is important to personal happiness of people with SCI.
  3. 98% of respondents said the workshop had been helpful, 2% said it had no effect, and no one said it had been harmful.
  4. 98% of the participants agreed that a program dealing with human sexuality should be offered on a voluntary basis for all spinal cord injured adults.
  5. Able-bodied and disabled participants agreed that addressing sexual health should be offered during the first hospitalization/certainly within the first 6 months after injury.
Katzman 1990; USA
(Description of
class and quotes
from students only)
Level 5
N = 78
Participants: 78 nursing students – 73 female,
5 male
Treatment: A course focusing on the effect of
illness, disability, and medical treatment on
sexual functioning, as well as sex education of
patients and clients.
Outcomes: Post-course interview with
  1. One participant said: “This class has led me to believe in sexual health care by nurses. I would have been content to leave it to the doctors or social workers who I thought were taking care of it…I was not aware of how little attention was given to patients’ sexual concerns by any health professional until I started looking for it. I now believe that nurses, more than anyone, can help bring about positive changes in these areas.”
  2. Another student said: “I think more resources for sexuality teaching should be available for nurses. I have cared for many patients who could have used this type of intervention, but I was not prepared to give it.”
Blanchard, 1976; USA
Level 5
Population: 56 nursing staff completed the
Treatment: 4 meetings of 1.25 hours each
dealing with a) personal taboos that prevent
people from developing a healthy therapeutic
attitude towards sexuality; b) misconceptions
about sex and of vocabulary; c) identification of
the sexual problems of the spinal cord injured
patient; and d) how the knowledge gained could
be used to help SCI patients.
Outcomes: Evaluated the program by
interviewing individual participants.
Participants reported that after the program they:
– enjoyed the class and felt it was worthwhile, though it was stressful at times, and that some participants became uncomfortable when peers freely shared sex experiences.
– could respond with a calm and positive attitude when patients asked about sexual functioning.
– appreciated having more factual knowledge to pass on to patients.
– found that patients learned about the program’s existence and felt freer to ask the nurses about sex.
– Found that nursing staff who did not participate were now interested in taking the program.
– Head nurses felt that other health disciplines should also be knowledgeable re: sexual rehabilitation.


One randomized controlled trial demonstrated that one-day workshops could improve clinician knowledge, comfort, approach, and attitude towards sexual health counselling (Fronek et al. 20052011). Another RCT (Sawyer et al. 1983) found that an interactive session on microcounselling would improve clinician’s ability to respond appropriately to sexual concerns of patients. One prospective controlled trial and multiple pre-post studies have shown that Sexual Health workshop participants show significant increases in knowledge, skills and comfort after workshops, and a number of these gains are maintained at three-month, six-month, and two year follow-up (Simpson et al. 2006; Giannoten et al. 2006; Tepper 1997; Chubon 1981; Mims et al. 1974; Cohen et al. 1994, 1996; Fronek et al. 2011).


There is level 1b evidence from 1 RCT (Fronek et al. 2005), level 2 evidence (Simpson et al. 2006) and level 4 evidence (Giannoten et al. 2006; Tepper 1997; Chubon 1981; Mims et al. 1974; Cohen et al. 1994, 1996) that educational workshops can improve clinician knowledge, comfort and attitudes towards sexual health counselling.

There is level 2 (Simpson et al. 2006) and level 4 evidence (Fronek et al. 2011; Giannoten et al. 2006) that gains can be in knowledge, attitudes, and comfort in addressing sexual health issues are maintained at six-month follow-up.

There is level 2 evidence from 1 poor quality RCT (Sawyer et al. 1983) that microcounselling sessions can improve clinician’s ability to respond appropriately to sexual concerns of patients.