Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in the U.S. climbed for the fifth year in a row. The newly released data prompted a call for federal intervention at the 2018 STD Prevention Conference. This begs the question, how did we get here? And more importantly, what can we do about it?
STD Infection by the Numbers
In 2015, the American Sexual Health Association noted that rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis reached a record high. And they’ve kept growing from there.
Preliminary CDC data from 2017 shows a 31% growth rate in diagnoses of these three common STDs since 2013. Individually, diagnosed cases of gonorrhea increased 67% and syphilis 76%. Chlamydia didn’t see quite the same rate of increase, but it remains the most common of these conditions with more than 1.7 million diagnosed cases in 2017.
Candy Hadsall, RN, MA, a prevention nurse specialist with the Minnesota Department of Health was at the conference and noted that the data wasn’t particularly surprising. “The CDC’s announcement that STD infection rates climbed again in 2017 just confirmed what we’re seeing in the field,” she said.
These numbers present a concerning – and initially, more than a little baffling – trend. After all, each of these infections is curable with appropriate antibiotic intervention, and the long-term effects of going untreated can be serious. So, why are infection rates continuing to grow?
The Root of the Problem
The factors influencing the increase in infections are complex and varied. A 2007 study in Sexually Transmitted Infections found an abundance of socio-demographic influences on infection rates, including race, income, gender, state of residence, age and history of incarceration. It also notes that attitudes toward sexual behavior and STD testing are prime factors in the diseases’ spread.
In the CDC’s recent announcement, Jonathan Mermin, M.D., M.P.H, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention noted, “It is evident the systems that identify, treat, and ultimately prevent STDs are strained to near-breaking point.”
At its core, the STD infection crisis is driven by this combination of attitudinal, demographic, economic and healthcare infrastructure influences.
Virtual Care’s Role in Fighting STD Infection
One of the best ways to stem the tide of STD infection is by reducing access barriers to testing and treatment, and here is where virtual care shows its value. The ways that virtual care can help patients overcome common barriers to care like geography, time and cost is well-documented. When it comes to sensitive issues like sexually transmitted diseases, virtual care can help mitigate emotional barriers, as well.
In an interview with MedCity News, Geri Lynn Baumblatt (then of Emmi Solutions from Wolters Kluwer Health) noted that patients tend to “engage in impression management” when seeing their doctor. What that means is, they try to paint themselves in the best possible light – consciously or unconsciously – in an attempt to avoid judgement and shame. While Baumblatt was speaking specifically about addiction concerns, this concept translates to sexual behavior. A solution that doesn’t require a face-to-face discussion can often produce more honest answers about sexual behavior and STD risk.
Hadsall concurs that the feeling of anonymity could help patients overcome the shame and stigma associated with STD infection. She also notes that adequate resources are a challenge in STD screening. “It’s just not possible to effectively screen everyone who should be screened,” she said. “Even at very high infectivity rates of 10-15%, that’s still 85-90 out of 100 people who are screened and test negative. With an online screening option, we could do a lot more and potentially make a real dent in STD infections.”
A Virtual Solution
Understanding the value of lowering barriers to STD testing and treatment, we developed evidence based protocols to support health systems as they work to manage steeply climbing STD rates for their patient populations. Our expedited partner therapy protocol enables patients whose partner has been diagnosed with chlamydia to get treatment. As the most commonly diagnosed STD across the country, and the one that is most frequently asymptomatic, this facilitates quick, discreet care for patients – without even requiring a test. By lowering barriers to receiving care for known chlamydia exposure, health systems can help reduce the continued spread of chlamydia.
We also recently created an evidence-based virtual care STD testing protocol that gathers risk assessment data and enables patients to access lab tests for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. This protocol leverages lab integration workflows to capture patient information and seamlessly route them to a lab location for testing. Our aim is to help health systems use the asynchronous patient interview to overcome the embarrassment patients feel talking about STDs, potentially increasing the likelihood of individuals to seek testing.
The continued rise of STD infections is a complex issue, impacted by everything from socio-cultural norms to poverty rates and education to healthcare access. It may feel overwhelming, but looking at individual pieces can still make a sizable impact. There are many factors virtual care can’t impact. What we can do is help take the strain off of the systems currently unable to manage this growing health crisis and lowering barriers to STD testing and treatment.