Today sees the launch of a new consultation which features guidelines aimed at improving the sexual health of everyone.
The consultation has been launched by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which provides guidance and advice to improve health services across England and where appropriate in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The new guidelines contain ambitions proposals that come at a time when there have been over 400,000 new diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in England, including a 22% increase in gonorrhoea and 20% increase in syphilis, compared to 2016.
The guidelines contain five quality statements that set out what people attending a health service can expect, as well as key objectives for services providers, Commissioners and healthcare professionals:
People are asked about their sexual history at key points of contact
This would ensure that, where appropriate, people are able to have a conversation about their sexual history, including any concerns they have, within a supportive environment and alongside a health professional.
However, at present, we know that NICE guidelines on HIV testing, which include testing new patients at GP surgeries in areas of high HIV prevalence, are not currently being followed through.
People identified at risk of STIs have a discussion about prevention and testing
Service providers would ensure that healthcare professionals are trained in sexual health and can offer advice on STI testing, including how regularly to test.
There is also a recommendation that young people should be signposted to services via schools – something we are calling on the UK Government to guarantee as part of new compulsory Relationships & Sex Education lessons.
People who contact a sexual health service for an appointment are seen within 48 hours
At present there is a huge strain on sexual health services, with cases of individuals who are symptomatic of an STI being turned away. This cannot continue.
Sexual health services must be fully funded and offer appointments as and when people need them. Any target must not dilute the importance of ensuring people can access clinics for urgent demands, such as access to Post-Exposure Prophylaxis which can stop HIV if taken 72 hours from exposure to the virus.
MSM have repeat testing every three months if they are at increased risk of an STI
Repeat testing is vital to reduce STI and HIV infections. For groups at increased risk, including gay and bisexual men, it’s vital a range of testing options are available, such as face-to-face appointments but also self-testing kits. Services should also adopt innovative approaches to remind people to test regularly.
There are also proposals to ensure that people diagnosed with an STI are supported to notify their partners.
How can these guidelines be achieved?
For these guidelines to be achieved, it is vital that ongoing funding cuts to local authority public health budgets are reversed, and increased funding be provided to local authorities for public health (including sexual health).
Local authorities must fully fund open-access sexual health and HIV prevention services that meet the needs of all local communities.
National and local government in England must work together if this is to be achieved.