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Digital revolution for people with sexually transmitted infections

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World-renowned sexual health experts are behind a new NHS digital revolution for people with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) using a new automated online consultation giving patients 24-hour access to medical care.

A team of scientists, led by Glasgow Caledonian University Prof of HIV and Sexual Health, and i-sense member, Prof Claudia Estcourt, have launched an ambitious five-year research project to develop a new NHS digital platform to improve care for people with STIs.

Prof Estcourt, as Principal Investigator, has been awarded a £2.5m National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Programme Grant for Applied Research to lead the project entitled ‘Improving care for people with Sexually Transmitted Infections and their sex partners in a digital NHS’.

Prof Claudia Estcourt

She is joined by a stellar co-investigator team from University College London, University of Strathclyde, University of Birmingham, Barts Health NHS Trust, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, West Sussex NHS Foundation Trust and Camden and Islington Council, and Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust where the programme will be hosted. 

People who test positive for chlamydia through home self-sampling will be given confidential access to a previously developed eSexual Health Clinic app. 

The team developed the eSexual Health Clinic with initial funding from UKCRC as part of the eSTI consortium. Further funding from i-sense EPSRC IRC enabled them to develop it further including the addition of pathways to support people who are testing for HIV at home using HIV self-tests or self-sampling kits. 

The eSexual Health Clinic contains a unique-to-the-NHS online automated clinical consultation and electronic prescribing algorithm for people with chlamydia, the UK’s most common STI. Patients will receive an electronic prescription to their phone and so they can pop into their local pharmacy to collect their antibiotics or get them sent straight to their home.

Prof Estcourt said STIs are on the rise with half a million people in the UK diagnosed each year, they have a huge impact on people’s lives and are very costly for the NHS. 

Prof Estcourt said: “Sexual health funding has been cut and online STI testing (self-sampling) is replacing face-to-face care. This could help many people, but others might find it difficult to use, particularly people at greater risk of STIs. We need to understand what hinders and helps people to engage with a range of options for testing, treating and preventing STIs, within inclusive, good value for money services.”

The platform could provide considerable health gains for people with STIs and could be applied across the NHS for many other health conditions, but it now needs full scale evaluation.

“We are absolutely delighted to have been awarded this grant from NIHR. The programme is particularly timely as NHS services adapt to a post-COVID world of increased remote and self-managed care.”