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SMS your doctor for sex advice

December 9th, 2005

Dr Petra

Students in New Zealand’s Western Bay secondary school are about to start using a new health service where they can use text messaging (SMS) to make appointments with their doctor.

Following a successful pilot with the student health service over six months the scheme is now in place in seven high schools. The project is funded by the Western Bay of Plenty Primary Health Organisation who aim to tackle adolescent risk behaviours including obesity, smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual health and suicide.

Those running the scheme say texting makes accessing health services easier and also feel more confidential. It also means health staff can contact students when needed. One health co-ordinator explained: “Usually they only know their family GP and are worried about going to the local health centre and running into a neighbour, or perhaps mum knows the receptionist well. Students often don’t feel like they can truly confidentially see a doctor or nurse. Ideally we would like students to share health issues and concerns with their parents, but realistically it’s not always going to happen. By having health care available at school students feel they have access to a confidential service”

Another added: “The kids know they can knock on my door or slip a note under it, but often they text for an appointment or to ask a question because they feel it’s more private. I text them with messages such as ‘your results are back, come and see me’ and I text as many seniors as possible inviting them back for their meningococcal vaccinations. I asked them to pass it on to all their mates and it seemed to work well.”

The scheme has the approval of students, parents and teachers. Boys in particular have found the service useful and the health co-ordinator from one boys college said: “Documentation has it that boys don’t self-refer, but I’ve certainly seen a significant number of boys coming to me with their issues and concerns especially as they see me around the school more and come to accept my role….I think for all students – but particularly boys – the idea of wrapping health services around them is definitely the way to go, because so often there are social barriers that stop families from accessing health services for their children”

By offering greater access to services health professionals hope to prevent early addictive behaviour like smoking or alcohol abuse that can lead to problems in adulthood and increase costs of providing healthcare. The approach also means psychological problems like anxiety or depression can be identified early on and treated or managed appropriately.

I know text messaging has been used to access sexual health services in other countries, but this new scheme is exciting as it offers evidence on uptake of services based around texting.

As an agony aunt working on Beauty Zambia magazine in Africa we found the use of our letters page increased dramatically once people could text in their questions.

Texting is great for talking about sex and having naughty conversations with a partner, but it’s also really useful if you need sex, relationship or health advice – and it seems that health services are definitely picking up and acting on that message.

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