Examining the acceptability of offering STI screening in higher educational settings

Uptake of screening for STIs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea, is often inadequate in young people despite provision of open-access sexual health services. Offering STI tests outside medical settings is currently being explored as a way to increase uptake in this group.

In 2017, St George’s University of London ran the ‘Test n Treat’ feasibility trial where free, confidential on-site testing for chlamydia and gonorrhoea was offered to students at six higher-education colleges in South London. We have previously reported on the main results of the trial and the cost estimates of providing such a service .

As part of the trial, the research team wanted to understand the acceptability of this type of service among students as well as the barriers and facilitators to its use. They interviewed a small sample of students, some of whom used the service and some of whom did not, as well teachers and the research team. The results of this qualitative study, which Aquarius Population Health gave advisory support to, were published in August 2020.

The paper reports that students who used the service had a very positive opinion of it. There were a number of barriers to using the service identified, including embarrassment about STI testing and the perceived view that individuals would be viewed negatively by their peers if they had an STI test. On the flip side, peers also acted as facilitators to uptake, for example, if a group of friends encouraged each other to get tested. A lack of understanding of STIs was another major barrier, with many students lacking understanding about the long-term consequences of STIs or having the misconception that only people with symptoms should get tested.  Where a £5 honorarium was given to students using the service, this acted as a legitimate incentive for testing, mitigating the (perceived) social stigma of testing.

The paper concludes that if a similar service were provided in future, uptake could be improved if education about sexual health was offered alongside testing, if small cash incentives were given and if peer influencers were engaged to promote the service.

Fleming, C., Drennan, V.M., Kerry-Barnard, S. et al. Understanding the acceptability, barriers and facilitators for chlamydia and gonorrhoea screening in technical colleges: qualitative process evaluation of the “Test n Treat” trial. BMC Public Health 20, 1212 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-020-09285-1

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