Sexual health is in crisis. Last week saw record demand for sexual health services in the UK, amid funding cuts.
While the headlines are bleak, we have a real opportunity to disrupt the way we treat this problem in the 21st century. And health tech is undoubtedly the cure, not just for patients, but for the NHS.
Despite the high demand for sexual health services, a report from Public Health England shows that between 2016 and 2017 there was an 8% decline in the number of chlamydia tests.
In addition, at a patient level, the current way sexual healthcare is provided can feel inconvenient, confusing, or even daunting: many do not want to wait weeks for an appointment, do not have time to wait in the waiting room, and feel scared at the prospect of face-to-face conversations about their sex life with a doctor. People fear the experience will be uncomfortable and embarrassing.
As a doctor, I would say there is no need for this fear, of course. I would never judge a patient and, like me, most doctors have “seen it all”. However, we have to take the stigma people feel around sexual health really seriously. This fear is paralysing and dangerous. Suffering in silence can cause long-term damage for people. An easily treatable infection like chlamydia, when undiagnosed and untreated, can cause long-term problems with fertility, and can spread throughout the population.
It means that men experiencing erectile dysfunction delay going to the doctor, facing untold anxiety and putting them at risk of the effects of underlying health conditions going undetected. In many case, erectile dysfunction is also a symptom of problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, all of which have serious long term health consequences.
Health-tech presents a huge opportunity to radically improve access to sexual health conditions. For example, we know that about 70-80% men with erectile dysfunction delay seeking help, but when they do want information, they go online. To the tech native GenZ – often the target of sexual health campaigns – online is their natural entry point for most services. It is the obvious pathway to improve the way that sexual healthcare is reached and accessed.
Being able to access compassionate, caring, advice and treatment from a doctor, at a time that suits you, from your computer or smartphone, with tests and medication couriered to your door, removes the barriers to healthcare that most patients experience. It is not only more convenient, but removes that nagging fear of judgement.
For people living far away from a sexual health clinic, this makes all the difference between the chance to be treated, or leaving symptoms unchecked.
Far from being impersonal, I find patients share more detailed information about their symptoms and concerns, when I talk to them online or on the phone. They are also far more likely to be honest about their sexual behaviour. They feel comfortable to open up, and the richness of information that I can gather is like nothing I experience when practising medicine face to face. Of course, this helps me to treat the patient much more thoroughly, effectively, and even more compassionately, as I can reassure them about the worries and concerns they could never bring themselves to tell another doctor.
In my own online GP practice we have performed over two million consultations, and are able treat at least double the number of patients each day than our colleagues in GP surgeries can. The benefits for the NHS to embrace digital health is massive, from a cost and efficiency perspective.
The tech focused Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock has pledged £400 million in tech transformation for the NHS. He would be wise to invest in re-inventing the way that we deal with sexual health in the UK through digital. It really is the best medicine for the current crisis.
Dr Louisa Draper is Medical Director at Zava - a digital healthcare provider