In 2016 there were over 417,000 new cases of STIs reported in England alone, with young people seeing the highest rate of new infections. The rapid spread of gonorrhoea ad chlamydia in particular are causing concern among health professionals, and while the use of condoms has been encouraged for decades, a study has shown that nearly half of under 25’s aren’t using them with new partners.
In the search for new strategies, it’s now thought that offering STI testing kits online as part of the existing sexual health services could be the way forward in early detection and treatment of infections. In fact, it’s now been found that offering young people testing kits online can almost double the uptake when compared with traditional clinics or doctor services.
As part of research into the effectiveness of online STI testing kits, over 2000 participants aged 16-30 from two London boroughs were recruited to see how effective online services are in comparison to face to face services. The results showed that of the patients offered an e-STI kit, there was a 50% uptake. When compared to the 27% who took up the option to visit a clinic, these results indicate that online testing could be a much more effective measure for detecting and treating infections in young people.
According to Free, who offer an online STI testing service “[E-STI testing] is more convenient; and for some people they would rather do a test like this in the privacy of their home than attend a clinic”, adding that these services should ideally be used alongside conventional, face to face care. Dr Mark Lawton of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV and a sexual health consultant in Liverpool, also welcomed the results “Anything that increases testing rates has got to be seen as a good thing,” he said. “For the right people the postal testing might be an acceptable way.”
Although he warned that “This should be in addition to, not instead of, traditional sexual health services which are best suited for people who have symptoms and also identifying vulnerable groups and supporting those,” he said. The National Aids Trust’s director of strategy, Yusef Azad, agreed. He said “Sexual health clinics need to be better funded so we can have both e-STI testing and end the long waiting times that are now building up for face-to-face appointments.”
The convenience of online testing seems to be popular, not just with young people, but with other groups too. “It is a really good news story, we are really delighted,” said Dr Caroline Free, co-author of the study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “It is good news that it increases testing and it is really good news that it does that in high risk groups as well as lower risk groups.”
Although the move has been welcomed by most healthcare workers, it has received some criticism. Part of the argument is that these services are being rolled out for the sole purpose of saving money, and offer a substandard service to patients who miss out on the chance to discuss other concerns or receive further advice on sexual health. However, most have argued that these disadvantages as greatly outweighed by the benefits the service offers.