UNITED KINGDOM – Reflecting on the Covid-19 pandemic through the eyes of a digital SRH service

by Dr Gillian Holdsworth, Dr Ahimza Thirunavukarasu

Blog: Faculty of Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare UK, Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists, 20 July 2020

SH:24 is a digital, user-centred sexual and reproductive health service, commissioned by several areas across the UK. SH:24 has a strong focus on the promotion of self-care. Services available through SH:24 include STI testing, chlamydia treatment, oral contraception and emergency hormonal contraception, photodiagnosis and treatment of genital warts and herpes.

Restrictions imposed by COVID-19 on clinic-based sexual health and reproductive health services have accelerated the scaling up of digital and remote care options to maintain access to vital services during this period. SH:24, a digital sexual and reproductive health service commissioned across several areas of the UK, has been at the forefront of this digital expansion. In this report, its Managing Director, Dr Gillian Holdsworth and colleague Dr Ahimza Thirunavukarasu share their experience of scaling up at speed, managing additional demand and bringing forward new service areas:

Looking back over the past few months, it is striking how swiftly our lives can change. The surge in Covid-19 cases during March delivered a shock to an already stretched healthcare system. Many face-to-face services closed or operated limited services and staff were deployed from all specialties, including sexual and reproductive health (SRH), to support the National Health Service response.

SH:24 also needed to make rapid changes. Within 24 hours of theGovernment announcing restrictions, they had to set up remote working arrangements for their London office staff and implement physical distancing guidance in their Keele logistics site. Then they were asked to scale up their operations in response to the suspension of many clinic services. For example, 13 new areas started commissioning SH:24 services between the end of February 2020 and June 2020.

Here are some of the additional key changes we made to our services:

We were requested to expand chlamydia treatment prescribing to include uncomplicated symptomatic chlamydia, rectal chlamydia and treatment for people aged 16 -17 years old.

We brought forward the launch of our emergency contraception service to the end of March.

In response to concerns that young people were being disadvantaged, we changed the age eligibility for oral contraceptives to include people aged 16-17 years old, with safeguarding measures put in place.

Photodiagnosis was commissioned as a service (previously piloted).

The volume of orders for SH:24 STI test kits, chlamydia treatment and oral contraception increased significantly in line with these changes to our service and the wider Covid-19 context. STI test kit monthly orders in 2020 rose from 23,721 in April to 30,031 in May, increasing to 41,633 in June. Monthly chlamydia treatment orders steadily increased from 654 in February to 1,147 in June and monthly oral contraception orders more than doubled from 500 in February to 1,203 in March, reaching 2,814 orders in June.

FULL TEXT: Blog: Faculty of Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare UK, Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists, 20 July 2020