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Phone sex: information technology (IT) and sexually transmitted infection in young people
  1. Mary Hernon,
  2. Jennifer Hopwood,
  3. Harry Mallinson,
  4. A K Ghosh
  1. Liverpool Laboratory, PHLS North West
  2. Arrowe Park Hospital
  1. Dr M Hernon, Department of Genitourinary Medicine, Arrowe Park Hospital, Upton, Wirral, CH49 5PE mary.hernon{at}ccmail.wirralh-tr.nwest.nhs.uk

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Editor,—The recent article on the acceptability of home testing for chlamydia was noted.1 We would like to extrapolate this concept. Young people could be accessed via an internet clinic. Our experience during the chlamydia pilot study is that this population makes extensive use of technology, in particular mobile phones. The presence of sex on the internet has been widely publicised. We propose that testing for sexually transmitted infection (STI) via the internet is the next logical step.

The chlamydia pilot study was funded by the Department of Health, to investigate the feasibility of screening 16–25 year old women (and some men), for chlamydia, using a urine specimen. Antibiotics for chlamydia are cheap and effective. The cost of complications to the individual is enormous, as is the cost to the NHS—£200 million per year.2 Screening reduced the prevalence of infection in Sweden and the United States.3 Computer modelling suggests that screening in this country would be cost effective.4

After screening for chlamydia, a means of contacting clients to give results was arranged—for example, letter or phone call. On the Wirral, 2651 patients were screened in the first 4 months—2332 women and 285 men (34, sex not recorded). Sixty eight (2.6%) gave a mobile phone number, half (35) using this as their only means of contact. Sixty five were female and two male (one patient not recorded). Thus, women (2.8%) were more likely to use mobile phones than men (0.7%) (p = 0.03). The genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic screened 358 patients. Only 68 (19%) gave an address. The results of a further 469 (17.7%) of the screened population went back to the screening site. These clients could be interested in contact via mobile phone if it was openly offered (data collected from the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS) database and analysed on epi-info 6).

According to a survey by NOP Social and Political, confidentiality is important to people in the target age group (unpublished data). Patients consider their mobile phones to be a secure method of communication between themselves and us. The advent of DNA amplification in the detection of STIs has opened up new possibilities.5, 6 There are 30 000 websites pertaining to chlamydia. An internet clinic would be aimed at mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic patients. The client would access the website and request swabs or urine pots through the post then return them the same way.

If the patients were positive, they would need to attend a GUM clinic or equivalent. Other infections should not be overlooked. Partner notification is necessary. Contact slips could be supplied but the health adviser's role should not be underestimated.

Security on the internet would have to be addressed. However, the anonymity and convenience of participating from home may increase testing for STIs. This may appeal to younger patients particularly, in view of their experience with IT.

In summary, STI is rising in the younger population. Their utilisation of technology is demonstrated by mobile phone use in the chlamydia pilot study. Health providers should respond using media with which the target population is comfortable. We might just access a whole generation. The future's bright . . .

Acknowledgments

Conflicts of interest: None. Funding of chlamydia pilot study: Department of Health.

References

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