Sexual Health in the COVID-19 era: rolling back progress or a once in a lifetime opportunity to tackle STIs?
Conflicting reports have circulated in the media about the state of the UK’s sexual health in recent weeks. While some stories focus on the threat the current situation poses to sexual health services and therefore health outcomes, with the Independent reporting that sexual health services could be ‘rolled back decades after STI treatment delays and cancelled cervical screenings’, others have struck a more optimistic note.
Highlighting the ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ for sexual health the current lockdown represents – in terms of driving down STI rates due to a marked decrease in people having sex with new partners and passing on infections - a BBC article pointed to the potential a combination of collective abstinence and remote advice, testing and treatment could have in improving the nation’s sexual health statistics.
The reality is largely dependent on the ability of individual providers to embrace innovative solutions that effectively tackle the unprecedented challenges of operating in the COVID-19 era. With 54% of the UK’s sexual health services closed due to the Coronavirus outbreak, and 38% of sexual health staff redeployed to other parts of the NHS1, it is unreasonable to expect providers to hit targets without a significant change of tack.
For the providers that are empowered to respond to the limitations posed by this crisis, there is a clear opportunity to transform sexual health provision. This transformation is not only needed to cope with fewer staff, clinic closures and social distancing protocols associated with the current crisis but to future proof provision in the aftermath of the pandemic too.
Technology has a major role to play in this transformation. Extending access to sexual health advice, testing and – where appropriate – treatment beyond the confines of clinics is a logical step forward. Giving patients the option to self-manage their sexual health securely online increases convenience and accountability, while reducing pressure on vital resource.
The phrase ‘in the rush to return to normal, think about what parts of normal are worth rushing back to’ has echoed throughout the last several weeks, making us all take stock of what’s important and consider better ways of living when lockdown finally lifts. Its relevance to sexual health provision is apt. Do we really want business as usual? Do we want sexual healthcare to return to exactly how it was? Or has being forced to operate differently shown us a new and improved path for the future?