Access to, usage and clinic outcomes of, online postal sexually transmitted infection services: a scoping review

Sex Transm Infect. 2022 Jun 14;98(7):528-535. doi: 10.1136/sextrans-2021-055376. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

Background: There has been considerable expansion in online postal self-sampling (OPSS) STI services in many parts of the UK, driven by increasing demand on sexual health services and developments in diagnostics and digital health provision. This shift in service delivery has occurred against a backdrop of reduced funding and service fragmentation and the impact is unknown. We explored characteristics of people accessing and using OPSS services for STIs in the UK, the acceptability of these services and their impact on sexual health inequalities.

Methods: A scoping review was conducted of studies published in English-language based on pre-agreed inclusion/exclusion criteria, between 01 January 2010 and 07 July 2021. Nine databases were searched, and 23 studies that met the eligibility criteria were included. Studies were appraised using the Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool.

Results: Study designs were heterogeneous, including quantitative, qualitative and mixed-methods analyses. The majority were either evaluating a single-site/self-sampling provider, exploratory or observational and of variable quality. Few studies collected comprehensive user demographic data. Individuals accessing OPSS tended to be asymptomatic, of white ethnicity, women, over 20 years and from less deprived areas. OPSS tended to increase overall STI testing demand and access, although return rates for blood samples were low, as was test positivity. There were varied results on whether services reduced time to treatment. OPSS services were acceptable to the majority of users. Qualitative studies showed the importance of trust, confidentiality, discretion, reliability, convenience and improved patient choice.

Conclusion: OPSS services appear highly acceptable to users. However, uptake appears to be socially patterned and some groups who bear a disproportionate burden of poor sexual health in the UK are under-represented among users. Current provision of online self-sampling could widen health inequalities, particularly where other options for testing are limited. Work is needed to fully evaluate the impact and cost-effectiveness of OPSS services.

Keywords: HIV; SEXUAL HEALTH; Telemedicine.

Publication types

  • Review