Making home STI tests available online doubles the number of young Britons getting checked for infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis, research suggests.
Half of those using ‘e-STI testing’ went on to get screened while only a quarter of people who have a face-to-face meeting with a nurse at a clinic or GP did so.
The random trial involved 2,072 people aged 16 to 30 living in Lambeth and Southwark in south London.
All had at least one sexual partner in the last 12 months, were willing to take an STI test, and had access to the internet to use STI testing.
Researchers found 50 per cent of the group using e-STI testing had a check up for STI, compared to just 26.6 per cent of those asked to physically go to health clinics.
Experts say making such a service available nationwide could decrease STI rates– but they stress clinical based services should still be available.
Introducing ‘e-STI testing’ services nationwide could decrease infection rates (stock image)
Rising rates of infections
STIs remain a global public health concern, with an estimated 357 million new infections of curable STIs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and trichomoniasis, each year.
More than 400,000 new diagnoses of infections were made in England in 2015 along with 5,684 new cases of HIV.
In 2016 there were more than 100,000 new STIs diagnosed in London, with residents of the capital accounting for almost half of new HIV diagnoses in the UK in 2015.
Infection is disproportionately high among the under 25s, black minority and ethnic groups and men who have sex with men.
Left undiagnosed and untreated, STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea can increase the risk of HIV transmission and cause a range of health issues including subfertility and ectopic pregnancy.
Emma Wilson from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and lead author of the study, said: ‘E-STI testing is currently being implemented in the UK as one measure to meet increasing demand for STI testing, but there is surprisingly little evidence on whether it successfully encourages uptake.
‘Our study, the first of its kind, aimed to investigate the effectiveness of e-STI testing for syphilis, HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhoea.’
How the research was carried out
In the trial participants randomly received one of two text messages.
The control group was sent a text message with a link listing the locations, contact details and websites of seven local sexual health clinics.
The intervention group received a message linking them to the e-STI testing and results service, called SH:24 in the south London boroughs.
The group given details of SH:24 was offered postal self-sampling test kits for chlamydia, gonorrhoea, HIV and syphilis, and when returned, were given results via text message or telephone and provided with online information about safe sex and sexual health.
Participants were free to use any other services or interventions during the study period.
Joint senior investigator Caroline Free said: ‘Sexual health clinics play an important role in community health but some people may find them inconvenient or stigmatising, which can stop them attending.
‘More long-term monitoring and evaluation of e-STI testing services is needed, but our study showed that when e-STI testing was made available alongside face-to-face services, the number of people getting tested for STIs nearly doubled.’
Importance of e-testing alongside face-to-face services
Researchers found that participants diagnosed using e-STI testing, and who needed follow-up treatment in a clinic, did not have any reduction in treatment time, compared to those who had first attended a face-to-face appointment.
New services such as e-treatment and postal treatment, may help improve treatment rates for people diagnosed with STIs online, experts say.
Joint senior investigator Dr Paula Baraitser from Kings College London, said: ‘Although the intervention group were given information to access an e-STI service, some of them chose to use face-to-face services instead of e-STI testing.
‘Therefore it is important that both online and clinical based services are available to meet the differing needs of people.
‘As sexual health services develop we would like to see further work aligning online and clinic based services.
‘Going forward we advise joint commissioning of these different modalities of care to ensure that users are able to move easily from one to another according to their health care needs, allowing continuity of care.’
The study, which also involved King’s College London, was published in Public Library of Science (PLOS).