Young people’s perceptions of smartphone-enabled self-testing and online care for sexually transmitted infections: qualitative interview study
BACKGROUND Control of sexually transmitted infections (STI) is a global public health priority. Despite the UK's free, confidential sexual health clinical services, those at greatest risk of STIs, including young people, report barriers to use. These include: embarrassment regarding face-to-face consultations; the time-commitment needed to attend clinic; privacy concerns (e.g. being seen attending clinic); and issues related to confidentiality. A smartphone-enabled STI self-testing device, linked with online clinical care pathways for treatment, partner notification, and disease surveillance, is being developed by the eSTI(2) consortium. It is intended to benefit public health, and could do so by increasing testing among populations which underutilise existing services and/or by enabling rapid provision of effective treatment. We explored its acceptability among potential users. METHODS In-depth interviews were conducted in 2012 with 25 sexually-experienced 16-24 year olds, recruited from Further Education colleges in an urban, high STI prevalence area. Thematic analysis was undertaken. RESULTS Nine females and 16 males participated. 21 self-defined as Black; three, mixed ethnicity; and one, Muslim/Asian. 22 reported experience of STI testing, two reported previous STI diagnoses, and all had owned smartphones. Participants expressed enthusiasm about the proposed service, and suggested that they and their peers would use it and test more often if it were available. Utilizing sexual healthcare was perceived to be easier and faster with STI self-testing and online clinical care, which facilitated concealment of STI testing from peers/family, and avoided embarrassing face-to-face consultations. Despite these perceived advantages to privacy, new privacy concerns arose regarding communications technology: principally the risk inherent in having evidence of STI testing or diagnosis visible or retrievable on their phone. Some concerns arose regarding the proposed self-test's accuracy, related to self-operation and the technology's novelty. Several expressed anxiety around the possibility of being diagnosed and treated without any contact with healthcare professionals. CONCLUSIONS Remote STI self-testing and online care appealed to these young people. It addressed barriers they associated with conventional STI services, thus may benefit public health through earlier detection and treatment. Our findings underpin development of online care pathways, as part of ongoing research to create this complex e-health intervention.