Half (49 per cent) of sexual health appointment requests in England, Scotland and Wales are denied, new research from Terrence Higgins Trust has found.
The charity’s ‘mystery shopper’ study used the persona of ‘Gabriela’, a cis-gender woman in her 20s with male and female partners who was displaying no symptoms after recently having sex without a condom, to try and get a sexual health appointment.
Face-to-face appointment offers were made by just half (51 per cent) of clinics that were contacted by phone, while waiting times to be seen averaged 13 days – something that was even higher in rural parts of England at 19 days.
Only one in 10 clinics had appointments that could be booked online in England, while none offered such an option in Wales.
The situation was better in Scotland, where 44 per cent of clinics offered appointments via a centralised booking system.
Just 11 per cent of sexual health services were found to offer drop-in services that are available to all, with significant national and regional differences in access to postal STI testing.
For example, while all clinics surveyed in Wales offered postal testing, only slightly more than half (56 per cent) did in Scotland.
Last year, 392,453 STIs were diagnosed in England, with gonorrhoea and syphilis reaching record high levels.
Sexual health organisations and services are clear that routine testing is an important way to prevent such things spreading, especially given that around 75 per cent of women and 50 per cent of men with chlamydia are asymptomatic.
“The sexual health of the nation has consistently been ignored by Central Government”
Terrence Higgins Trust is now calling for free postal testing to be available year-round in Scotland and England, as it is in Wales.
The charity is also asking that sexual health appointments be bookable via the relevant NHS apps, with a target wait time of 48 hours.
Richard Angell, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “The sexual health of the nation has consistently been ignored by Central Government. A wake up call is needed.
“If more than 1,000 new STIs being diagnosed each and every day does not incentivise 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 per cent so as to address years of consistent under-funding.”
NEW: Today our new #MysteryShopper research reveals the difficulty accessing sexual health services in England, Scotland & Wales – with 49% of clinics denying our persona ‘Gabriela’ an appointment.
At the same time gonorrhoea and syphilis are at record levels #FundSexualHealth
— Terrence Higgins Trust (@THTorguk) July 20, 2023
The report, titled Over-stretched and under strain: A Mystery Shopper Approach to Access to Sexual Health Services in England, Scotland and Wales, was published 20 July and is based on research carried out by Terrence Higgins Trust with the support of the British Association of Sexual Health and HIV.
Approximately 57 clinics were contacted using the persona of ‘Gabriela’, with the provision of postal STI services, drop-in services and online booking systems also surveyed.
The report can be read in full here.