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The quality of our sexual health clinics is excellent – let’s make their services more accessible

WHEN the sexual health centre reached the top of my most frequently contacted numbers, I knew there was a problem.

I’d been calling to book the same appointment for weeks. Every morning on my commute I’d dial the centre, be on hold for 20-40 minutes, only to be put through and told there were no appointments available, again. I needed to be checked out only as a precaution, but I ended up lying about having symptoms as this was the only way I could be seen.

It wasn’t always this difficult. I’d been to a hospital clinic a year back, and had no trouble booking an appointment for the following week. But after the closure of this clinic, the only centre left just wasn’t big enough to serve the area.

After speaking to other students I realised I wasn’t alone with this problem, the closure and over-subscription of clinics is a pattern repeated nationwide.  We’re constantly bombarded with messages about how important it is to take your sexual health seriously, but this is difficult when the appointment process is so frustrating.

Walk-in clinics are usually available at larger centres, but for those who live in more rural areas it’s impossible to make the long journey into the city when there’s no guarantee of being seen that day.

I spoke to Kate*, 20, on her experience of getting an appointment. “After a scare from my ex, I went straight to the free walk-in clinic in my area. It was the longest morning of my life with long queues and paperwork to fill in, and I had to come back later in the day.”

Ben, 20, has had a similar experience. “It was so difficult to get seen by a doctor. I went to several walk-in clinics to find that every appointment had been taken. This only added to the stress of suspecting I had an STI, and being a gay man I was insanely conscious about the risk of HIV. My general happiness started to be affected.”

It’s unfair to blame the centres for the problem – sexual health services have seen huge cuts to their funding. The government’s £200million public health budget cut has resulted in local councils slashing funding for sexual health services, causing the closure of clinics and a huge strain on those that are left.

“We’re constantly bombarded with messages about the importance of sexual health, so why is it so difficult to get an appointment?”

The students I spoke to all praised the services they received once they managed to get an appointment, and it’s important to recognise the amazing work of the doctors and nurses.

“After eventually getting an appointment, I was treated swiftly and appropriately by the doctors and nurses, who I felt very safe with” said Ben.

“I was diagnosed with Gonorrhoea which cleared up after a week of medication. The nurses were all really supportive and attentive, and gave me lots of information to protect myself from infection in the future.”

Grace, 19, also praised the quality of the services. “The staff were really friendly and helpful, they’re well trained in what they do and are generally non-judgemental. The main issue with the clinics is the wait to be seen.”

“When I’m at Uni the clinic offers a chlamydia and gonorrhoea self-test, which is posted to you and is free to return and is a lot easier than waiting for appointments, but this is something they don’t offer in my hometown.”

This STI self-testing postal kit has been introduced in a few cities, it’s sent in a discreet box and is handy for those who feel embarrassed about going to a clinic or are struggling to get an appointment.

However, the test can only detect chlamydia and gonorrhoea so other STIs could still go unnoticed. It seems to be a low-cost way of replacing the services of the sexual health clinics, without the support of the doctors and nurses that can be so vital.

Elizabeth Carlin, president of the British Association of Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH), is one of many specialists to express concern: “sexual health services play a key role in protecting the health of the nation,” she says, “coordinated care with sufficient funding is crucial.”

With a 20% rise in cases of syphilis last year, and an 11% rise in  cases of gonorrhoea,  you would expect local councils to be protecting, if not enhancing, their sexual health services. But with pressure from the government to make cuts, all we’re seeing is a plunge in available services which is getting out of control.

The government must stop cutting funds, make appointments more readily available and protect the vital work of our sexual health clinics.

* names have been changed

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