‘It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult,’ I thought to myself as I looked down at the pitiful drops of blood leaking from my finger. I’d already pricked two of my fingers for blood and had moved on to a third.
The instructions told me to keep my hand at waist level, to aid blood flow, and to massage the finger to ‘milk’ it for blood once pricked. But have you ever tried getting anything more than 3-4 drops from a finger-prick?
This was my first experience of doing an sexual health home-testing kit. And it wasn’t going quite to plan.
Fewer sexual health clinics
Last week, Gay Star News exclusively revealed that Dean Street Express in Soho, central London, was slashing the number of appointments it was offering from 350 a day to just 75. It already had 1,500 people apply daily for its limited appointment slots.
Around five STI [Sexually Transmitted Infection] clinics in the UK capital have closed over the last two years. At least three of them directly linked to financial cutbacks. As clinics close, the demand on existing clinics rises.
It had been getting increasingly difficult to get an appointment slot at Dean Street Express – the busiest sexual health clinic in Europe. In part, its popularity is due to the quick turnaround of results (you usually got a text message within 4-6 hours of visiting). Its location in the heart of Soho is another selling point.
Sexually-active gay men are encouraged to get an STI check-up at least once a year. Or more often if they have lots of partners or engage in riskier sexual practices. It’s suggested those regularly having condomless sex with numerous partners have a full check-up every three months.
This guidance has helped to drive down the HIV infection rate in London. Dean Street itself recorded a massive 80% drop in HIV infection rates in late 2017.
Encouraging men on PrEP to get tested every three months is also helping to ensure that cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are detected quickly.
All well and good… except for the fact the UK is in the midst of an austerity drive. The NHS is on its knees.
The move to home-testing
Sexual health services are funded by local authorities, and they have far less money to spend on providing testing for those without symptoms. This has led to Dean Street Express reorganizing its services.
It now prioritizes seeing those with symptoms. It is forced to encourage anyone without symptoms to order a home-testing kit. People I’ve spoken to off the record tell me staff are deeply unhappy about this and wish they could do more – but their hands are tied.
‘Maybe ordering a home-testing kit is the way forward?’ I thought. So, I thought I’d try it out. Logging on to the Dean Street website, it now suggests ordering a home-testing kit via Sexual Health London. You enter your details and it dispatches a kit.
At each stage of the process, you receive an email or text message, letting you know you’re registered, the kit’s on its way, etc. You even get a message reminding you to set ten minutes aside to do your test and offering advice (‘Top tip: Keeping your hands warm will make taking blood samples easier’).
The kit duly arrives and I get another message reminding me to do it. Opening it up, I’m surprised by the amount of equipment packed in the small box. It’s like assembling a Kinder Egg surprise without the chocolate treat (although they throw in a condom for good measure!).
Swabs for throat and anus are straightforward. As is the urine sample. It’s the finger-prick blood test that proves more difficult.
Maybe I should have kept my hands in warm water for a few minutes rather than a cursory wave beneath the hot tap. Either way, getting sufficient blood from my fingers to fill the tiny test tube takes a good ten minutes in itself.
I just about manage to hit the bare minimum required and hope it will suffice.
I carefully place all the specimens back in their protective packaging and seal the box, which is free to send back to a laboratory. Posting it on the way to work, I pray it doesn’t get damaged in the post. I should get the results in around 3-6 days.
Truth be told, the bloody mess of finger-pricking myself aside, this was fairly convenient. I didn’t have to travel anywhere and sit for ages in a waiting room. I just now have to wait a bit longer for the results.
If anything comes back positive, I should be able to make an appointment with a clinic pretty quickly.
What if I lived with my parents?
That’s all fine and dandy for me, but as some have pointed out, home-testing won’t suit everyone.
What if I shared my home with a partner but didn’t want them to know I was testing my sexual health? What about a young person living at home with their parents? The arrival of a small box in the post might prompt awkward questions (even though its packaging is very discreet). What if you don’t have symptoms but want to talk to someone about your concerns?
No-one seems to be offering an easy solutions to these issues.
A Dean Street spokesperson told us last week they it, along with other London clinics, now has targets to encourage people to home-test. Here in the UK, it’s going to be increasingly foisted upon us … whether we like it or not.
If you’re a sexually active adult in London, you might want to check out the service. I’d be interested to know what others make of it. Not only will you helping ease the demand on appointments, but you might also get around to having tests that you’ve long put off because you simply haven’t found the time to go to a clinic.
If you do, just make sure to warm your hands up well first!