Objectives: To examine the pattern of attendance at sexually transmitted disease (STD) clinics in Britain. To compare the demographic characteristics, behaviours and attitudes of STD clinic attenders with those of non-attenders, and to assess the extent to which STD clinics are used by those with high-risk sexual lifestyles.
Design: Random sample general population survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyle.
Subjects: 18,876 randomly selected men and women resident in Britain aged 16-59 years.
Main outcome measures: Demographic characteristics, pattern of homosexual partnerships, heterosexual partnerships, payment for sex, abortion, drug injection in the last five years, and attitudes to sexual behaviours amongst 512 respondents who had attended STD clinic in the last five years compared with those who had not.
Results: 8.3% of men and 5.6% of women had attended a clinic in their lifetime and 3.4% and 2.6% respectively in the last five years. Attendance rates varied substantially with area of residence. 11% of Inner London residents had attended in the last five years. In multivariate analysis, STD clinic attendance for men was most strongly associated with increased numbers of heterosexual partners, (OR = 6.01 (4.44-8.15) and homosexual partnerships (OR = 9.59 (5.83-15.8)) and more weakly associated with payment for sex, non-manual social class, age 25-44, unmarried status and smoking. Clinic attendance for women was most strongly associated with numbers of heterosexual partners (OR = 3.74 (2.76-5.08) and injecting drug use (OR = 4.39 (1.73-11.1)). A weaker independent association was found with a history of abortion, anal sex, non-manual social class, non-married status and age 16-24. From the total population, 1 in 6 men and 1 in 7 women in the top 5% of the distribution for numbers of heterosexual partners and 1 in 5 men paying for sex and 1 in 4 of those with a homosexual partner had attended a clinic in the last five years. The probability of attendance increased with multiple risk behaviours. Of women 64.2% and of men 69.7% attending clinics reported major risk markers for STD transmission.
Conclusions: STD clinics in Britain are used by a wide demographic spectrum of the population. The behaviours, but not the attitudes, of attenders differed markedly from those of non-attenders. Clinics are relatively efficient in attracting only those with high-risk lifestyles, but, at a population level, the minority of those reporting risk-markers for STD transmission attend clinics. These findings suggest that STD clinics are an important focus for sexual health promotion, but that community programmes are also important for reaching non-attenders.