First-Year M.D./M.P.H. Student Receives External Grant for Study of Sexual Dysfunction in Pelvic Cancer

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The International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health has awarded Orly Morgan, a first-year M.D./M.P.H student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, a grant to pursue her project “Let’s Talk about Sexual Dysfunction: Evaluating Patient-Clinician Communication about Female Sexual Dysfunction After Radiotherapy to the Pelvis.”

“It is rare to have a first-year medical student, especially one in this dual degree program, secure an external grant for research,” said Alberto J. Caban-Martinez, D.O., Ph.D., M.P.H., C.P.H., associate professor of public health sciences at the Miller School. “Orly is a brilliant young woman. Her scientific curiosity and passion to bridge the gap between public health and clinical medicine is impressive.”

Orly Morgan

Morgan chose the topic based on her experience as a research coordinator before beginning medical school. She would ask cancer patients about their interest in participating in research trials and recalls that many women were interested in trials that might help with their “horrible sexual dysfunction” from radiation treatment.

She looked into the problem and realized that while erectile dysfunction is a big part of the conversation when men are deciding on cancer treatment plans, it is not the case with female cancer patients.

“With women, most of the conversation and research are about reproduction capacities, which is massively presumptuous and ignores a huge segment of someone’s quality of life,” Morgan said.

The topic ignited Morgan’s passion for patient-centered education, which she said should be based on a symbiotic relationship between patients and their doctors, not necessarily on information from a textbook.

Radiation treatments for not only female cancers but any cancer that requires radiation to the pelvic area can impair women’s sexual function. Women undergoing the treatment should have discussions with their doctors about whether the most aggressive treatment possible is more important to them than short-term quality of life. For some, preserving sexual function might be paramount in choosing a treatment plan, Morgan said.

Morgan’s project, which was awarded a grant of $4,867, will involve surveying female Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center patients who have survived radiotherapy and asking questions such as: If you were the doctor here, what would you have done differently? How would you have explained your sexual dysfunction? If you were going through this again, what would you have liked to know? What would you have liked to hear? If you met someone now who is undergoing a treatment plan, what would you say to them?

“My goal is to generate a type of patient guide for doctors about how to talk about sexual dysfunction as a side effect of cancer care,” Morgan said. “I do believe there is chronic devaluing of women’s emotional concerns, and my main incentive with this project is to be able to offer something to the patient.”

Morgan said her focus on patient-centered communication and care likely stems from her humanities background (she did not enter medical school with the traditional science major). Reading poetry and books helped inspire her to pursue medicine. Her research aims to look at the “soul behind the method,” she said.

Morgan, who with the help of her mentor Dr. Caban-Martinez applied for the grant in her first semester at the Miller School, will start the project in June and complete it next year. In the long term, she plans to practice medicine and do research.

“Something that I really want to emphasize in my practice, research and life is being able to listen and hear patients and be able to modify our actions based on that,” Morgan said. “They are the reasons we do this.”

Dr. Caban-Martinez said he is thankful that Morgan has been awarded the grant.

“I think this will increase her curiosity and perhaps encourage her to continue research when she completes residency training,” Dr. Caban-Martinez said. “By all accounts, it is a small grant, but money is not the issue. It is the opportunity it creates for Orly to explore this research topic and really help a group of women that need it. Orly is practicing public health, looking at all the social determinants of health and communication and how she can improve the experience for future women who undergo radiation therapy to the pelvis.”