British Journal of Health Psychology

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Shaping parents, shaping penises: How medical teams frame parents’ decisions in response to hypospadias

Introduction

Psychological research provides insights into how parents approach medical decisions on behalf of children. The medical decision of concern here is the surgical alteration of a hypospadic penis, whose urethral opening does not appear at the tip. Hypospadias surgery is routinely carried out in infancy, despite criticism by international organizations concerned about children's rights. The focus of this study is on the framing of hypospadias surgery.

Objectives

The objective was to examine how health professionals frame hypospadias and hypospadias surgery in medical and non‐medical ways.

Design

This was a qualitative study designed to build on the experimental research of Streuli et al. who investigated how medical versus non‐medical information affects decision‐making about non‐essential childhood genital surgery.

Methods

Semi‐structured interviews were undertaken with 32 health professionals. Theoretically informed thematic analysis was used to examine how health professionals talk about hypospadias surgery and about supporting parents to make treatment decisions.

Results

The analysis suggests that medical professionals’ engagement with parents underestimates the effect of framing in influencing parental decisions about hypospadias surgery. Some psychological specialists in this area are actively framing hypospadias in ways that enable some parents to choose a non‐medical pathway. Psychologically informed ways of talking about a child's genital difference focus on psychological qualities, including affect, well‐being, and unconditional positive regard.

Conclusions

The best interests of children with hypospadias may well be served when psychological pathways are highlighted, providing opportunities to support the flourishing of children whose genital appearance raises the question of medical intervention.

What is already known on this subject?

  • Framing significantly affects medical decision‐making in ways that people typically fail to perceive.
  • Parents frequently consent to non‐essential hypospadias (penile) surgery for their sons, despite the risks and ethical concerns.

What does this study add?

  • Medical teams could do more to consider framing when counselling parents about their son's hypospadias.
  • Psychological specialists can help parents to frame their son's penile difference in terms of well‐being and love.
  • The best interests of children with hypospadias may be served by highlighting psychological care pathways.

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