Visiting a sexual health clinic isn’t an experience you hear many people talk about with fondness. Actually, it’s not an experience you hear many people openly talk about full stop. Sure, you’ll perhaps overhear some bragging about someone’s sexual encounters but there’s an unwillingness in the UK to have open and frank discussions about sex and sexual health and there’s also an undeniable stigma when it comes to sexually transmitted infections.
Many sexually transmitted infections actually don’t present any symptoms and without the incentive of pain or discomfort it’s not unusual for people to hope for the best and forego being tested to avoid busy clinics with long waiting times and judging eyes. The judgement is more than likely projected and a result of a person’s own sexual value judgements, but it’s something many people feel about being tested for STIs. It’s in part because of this kind of unwillingness to take responsibility for our own sexual health and the feeling that attending a clinic is an awful lot of effort to go to for a ‘just-in-case’ that we see STIs continue to spread.
SH:24 is a service working in partnership with NHS trusts that wants to make the experience of STI testing and asking questions about sexual health much easier and more comfortable. Rather than go to a busy clinic, the service allows you to order an STI test online at any time of day. The test is then delivered to your home where you do it yourself and send your samples back to their lab. You’ll be kept up to date through the entire process via text and you’ll also receive your results this way. If you test positive for any infection your results text will include advice on what to do next and an NHS clinician may contact you to offer additional advice. SH:24 are currently able to test for Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, Syphilis and HIV.
I tested the service myself to get a better understanding of how it works. The process involved providing some information about myself such as my name, address, sex, and sexuality. I was informed by text when my test was posted and I received it in one day.
The tests come with clear instructions on how to use them, and there are also YouTube videos you can access which is especially useful for anyone nervous about providing a blood sample. After taking your samples all you have to do is post them back in the envelope provided and wait for your results which never takes any longer than a week. The service was fast, professional, completely free and at all times it felt as anonymous as it possibly could be.
SH:24 has been running for 10 months and right now it’s only available in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark but they’re looking to scale up and form partnerships with more NHS trusts with hopes to eventually be available across the UK. We talked to Leanne Ford from the service who gave us some details on what kind of results and feedback they’ve been seeing so far.
They’ve had 9000 orders in the past 10 months and out of those orders around 32% have been from 16-24 year olds and 62% have been from those who identify as female. Leanne said much of their orders have come from the late 20s to early 30s bracket, which makes sense as it’s the most convenient way for people working full-time to be tested.
In the coming months SH:24 don’t just want to expand where they provide their service, they also want to expand the nature of the service they’re providing. Right now the website is a great source for any sexual health information you might need as well as offering the testing service. It’s got easy-to-digest information on STIs and all the contraception options you have access to through the NHS. It also helps you find your local clinics and pharmacies and there’s a number you can text if you want some answers you can’t find on the site.
A new and excellent feature on the site is the web chat. Safe and secure, this chat window gives you immediate access to an NHS clinician who is able to answer any questions you might have or offer advice. There are plans to roll out an option to receive treatment for Chlamydia by post if you test positive around April, and in summer the service aims to expand into contraception. Rather than get a GP appointment in order to receive their oral contraception, women will be able to have it delivered to their home following a one on one online consultation with a sexual health nurse. They’ve had positive feedback for the idea of this service.
I’m incredibly excited about the possibilities of SH:24. Having easy access to things like contraception and STI tests online can only improve people’s understanding of, and willingness to take responsibility for, their sexual health. The service’s sex positive attitude should hopefully contribute improved sexual education and a reduction in stigma. Not only that, online and home access to these services could take a massive amount of pressure off of sexual health clinics. When there aren’t people queueing for straightforward tests or contraception refills there’s more room for those who need immediate physical access to a sexual health professional.
We’re going to be keeping up to date with SH:24 to see how the online service continues to progress and we’ll keep you updated. You can also follow them on Twitter where they frequently do polls to improve their service and provide sex positive content. In the meantime, why not order a test for yourself? You can do it from where you’re sitting and not have to move until it comes through the letterbox.
SH:24 has expanded its service to other parts of the UK! In addition to Lambeth and Southwark, SH:24 is now offering its service to those in Herefordshire, Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin, and Essex. SH:24 are still planning to roll out their Chlamydia treatment and contraception services in July of this year. We’ll keep you updated!