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In the news – Viagra and STI testing now available online

September 29th, 2008

Dr Petra

The internet offers us many sex-related things. Some of what’s on offer can be sexy, entertaining and helpful. Some of it can be tacky, inaccurate and often pretty grim.

One way we can use the net is to give people greater opportunities to manage their own sexual health and two interesting examples have just been launched.

The first is the opportunity to order erectile dysfunction drugs online. With a leading UK pharmacy now offering the chance for men to buy ED drugs without having to see their GP. The new service will require men to complete an online health questionnaire which will be vetted by a doctor and suitable patients will be sent appropriate medications.

The pharmacy behind the scheme cites the high levels of men with ED and the embarrassment men face in seeing their doctor for setting up the service. They don’t mention making money from it, although undoubtedly that’s got to be the driving force.

Those in favour of such a service feel it makes it easier for men to get help and means they won’t be buying ED drugs through dodgier sites that don’t offer medical support and sometimes sell products that aren’t all they seem.

Critics argue that men may lie on online forms to get the medication – particularly if they’ve been refused it by a GP. It’s also making it less likely that men requiring sex or relationship therapy would get the help they need if only one aspect of their psychosexual problems is addressed through online drug sales.

We’ll have to see how this pans out. I’m in two minds about the service. I do think it makes getting medication easier and through a more reputable source, but I don’t think it truly tackles mens’ issues with ED. And I do wonder who suggested to the pharmacy this was a good idea – what involvement did the drug companies have? They’re losing hold within general practice so perhaps influencing the high street is the next best thing. It would have been nice to see some journalists investigating this angle.

Next up is an initiative from the US (San Francisco to be precise) where residents can use an online testing service to check for syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV and herpes. A confidential online testing resource, www.STDTest.org is a collaboration between Internet Sexuality Information Services, Inc.
(ISIS) and the San Francisco Department of Public Health – STD Prevention and Control.

Here’s how it works. You print your own lab slips from the website and find your nearest test site to take your samples. You then get your results between 3-5 days later via the website (using a pin protected unique identifier to ensure only you see your results). This is with the exception of HIV results which are delivered over the phone by a trained counsellor. The
Department of Public Health will ensure all persons who test positive for an STD receive information on treatment options as soon as possible, whether through City Clinic or their own healthcare provider.

There’s also a mechanism called “Pay it Forward” where you can donate a test to family, friends, loved ones, or someone in need– allowing the entire community to benefit from information and services available.

There are already services that let you test for STIs online, but many of these only offer a diagnosis rather than treatment, and some are not always reputable – many are run as businesses rather than joint ventures between tech companies and public health organisations – as is the case with www.STDTest.org.

The only downside to any testing service like this is people may interpret a negative test result as a ‘clean bill of health’ and rely on testing over condom use. However, given the burden put on clinics to both test and treat, giving people the opportunity to manage their own sexual health can only be good news.

It’s great to see creative opportutnities springing up between online and sexual health services. Although as a final word of caution we still need to evaluate such initiatives as too often in sexual health we’ve tended to say ‘we’ve provided a service ergo it works’. We still need to test out what we’re doing, whether it works, and any flaws in services – just to make sure we’re providing the right care in the right places.

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