A new study has exposed the startling lack of access to sexual healthcare in the UK. After testing the healthcare resources across Great Britain, the researchers nearly half of all requests for doctor’s appointments concerning sexual health were denied.
The study was conducted by Terrence Higgins Trust, a nonprofit focused on HIV and sexual health services, with support from British Association of Sexual Health and HIV. In the UK, the National Health Service is funded by the government, and the researchers wanted to examine “the state of sexual health services after a decade of austerity.”
Under the persona of a ‘mystery shopper’ called ‘Gabriela,’ the researchers contacted 57 clinics in England, Scotland, and Wales to try to book a sexual health appointment. ‘Gabriela’ was described as being in her mid-20s, having recently had unprotected sex with both men and women, and as experiencing no symptoms. The researchers chose this persona in order to test whether clinics prioritized symptomatic patients, given that asymptomatic patients are common in STIs like chlamydia.
Like many such challenges, the case hinges on whether a gender-affirming care ban constitutes sex discrimination.
What they found was that 49% of appointment requests in all three countries were denied. The remaining 51% did offer face-to-face appointments, but with wait times averaging 13 days (19 in rural areas).
While these appointments were successfully made by telephone, online booking proved challenging. In England, only 10% of clinics offered online booking, none in Wales, 44% in Scotland.
Only 11% of clinics offered walk-in appointments without exceptions. Postal STI testing, meanwhile, varied wildly. All clinics in Wales offered mail-in testing, but only 56% in Scotland did.
In consequence, the researchers are calling on all three countries to provide free year-round postal testing, easy access to online appointment booking, and to reduce wait times to no more than 48 hours.
“The sexual health of the nation has consistently been ignored by Central Government,” said Richard Angell, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust. “A wake-up call is needed. If more than 1,000 new STIs being diagnosed each and every day does not incentivize policy change and renewed investment, it is hard to see what will.
“Ultimately, you get what you pay for – the lowest real terms spending on sexual health is matched by the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections.
“The Government should guarantee long-term funding settlements for sexual health services at a rate of inflation plus 1 percent so as to address years of consistent under-funding.”