Digitalised sexual health services wouldn’t be trusted by young people

Digital services, such as anonymous apps and texting services, could change how we engage with sexual health services but young people wouldn’t trust them, finds new research by Cardiff University.

Research has found that whilst digital sexual health services hold a lot of potential for helping young people feel more comfortable talking about sexual health, there are major issues with what young people expect and want from these services, and they currently wouldn’t trust them.

"Internationally, health systems are shifting towards digitally-mediated care to meet the health needs of populations, and sexual health services have been at the forefront of these changes.

"Young people continue to underutilise sexual healthcare, in both face-to-face and virtual services. We aimed to understand what could be done to increase engagement with sexual health services."

By working with sexual health nurses from across three English NHS Trusts in coastal, rural and urban locations, as well as conducting research with 16-18 year olds in full-time education in England and Wales, researchers from Cardiff University set out to understand perceptions of digital sexual health technologies and nurses’ first-hand experience of providing these services.

The research found that whilst nurses thought that digitalising sexual health services would help some young people overcome barriers to treatment such as embarrassment, young people distrust online services and have unrealistic expectations about what they can provide.

The research also showed that digital services are limited in addressing inequalities of access to sexual health services due to a lack of access to technology among some young people.

"Although digital transformation has permeated into virtually every aspect of daily life, and especially for the lives of young people, we cannot assume digital literacy and access to digital technology. It’s important to highlight, as services become more digital, that there are risks of digital exclusion among those who have limited access, skills and awareness of digital services.

"Our research demonstrates that digital platforms and services alone - as the young people in this study articulate - would be insufficient in addressing their needs. Instead, digital services need to form part of the system and not replace traditional face to face service provision," added Dr Bennett.

Findings showed that young people need digital services to be accessible and user-friendly, and whilst digital sexual health services hold potential to increase engagement from some young people, the services should be complimentary to clinic visits but should not replace them.

Before digital services can achieve their potential, trust needs to be addressed as does the expectations around what the service can deliver.

"Digital sexual health systems hold great potential - in both improving access to sexual health services for young people, and breaking down some sexual health inequalities. But the issues of trust and expectation need to be addressed, and these technologies need to be integral to the wider systems, otherwise there is a risk that their impact will be compromised," added Dr Bennett.