A Virtual HIV Clinic Could Be the Precursor to Anonymous Online STD Testing

virtual hiv clinic is helping patients protect themselves

In the privacy of your own home.

It’s a simple phrase with a powerful motivation built into it. There’s safety and comfort at home–it’s our own personal world. So, would you be more willing to see a doctor and discuss a deeply personal medical issue if you could do so in the privacy of your own home?

The answer, at least for most of us, would have to be yes.

A new program being run in partnership with the University of Iowa Health Care is offering people at risk of HIV infection the option to seek preventative treatment online, via video conferencing. The program creates what is basically a virtual HIV clinic, an innovative way to get around the social stigmas associated with HIV. It’s also a unique way to empower people who might otherwise not seek out help.

It could also be the forerunner to private sexually transmitted disease testing that can be performed from home, online.

Virtual HIV Clinics in Practice

The Iowa program is jointly supported by University of Iowa Health Care, the Signal Center for Health Innovation, and the Iowa Department of Public Health, and is essentially designed to distribute and monitor the use of the HIV prevention medication pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP.

It has been in operation since 2015, and allows people at risk of contracting HIV to access the medication without ever leaving their home. After an initial phone all, patients download the video calling app Vidyo, and then meet their doctor for a scheduled visit online. Prescriptions are filled out remotely and the drugs themselves are delivered through the mail. Even the regular follow-up consultations are conducted online, keeping the entire treatment process as personal as a private Skype call.

There are currently around 30 patients using the system to monitor their PrEP treatment, though the aptly named TelePrEP program has the potential to reach hundreds more, including potential patients in Iowa’s most rural and remote settings.

What Telehealth Can Offer

Telehealth, simply the use of video conferencing in healthcare, is growing as a method of bringing advanced medicine to regional areas of the U.S. In the past 12 months alone, telemedicine in Texas became legal, and the U.S. Senate moved to radically increase the reach of a University of New Mexico program to bring video conferencing support to rural doctors via virtual clinics.

This rise in support for rural telehealth has real significance for potential clients of TelePrEP. It has been reported that the lack of anonymity in small rural communities and widespread stigma attached to HIV and AIDS makes it especially difficult for people to seek out HIV services. Furthermore, since small populations cannot financially support large medical centers there’s a scarcity of both medical resources and medical specialists.

Taking matters online, away from the social stigma and toward expert services could be a life-saving change. Strong mainstream support for programs like TelePrEP could also lead to an expansion of services, creating wholly virtual STD clinics that could be accessed from home. It’s the logical next step, and it would make it much easier–logistically and psychologically–for patients to seek and get treatment.

Looking Ahead to Online STD Clinics

The biggest hurdle an online STD clinic would have to clear is getting blood samples from patients. There are already remote devices available to convey other biometric data, such as heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and the depth and severity of wounds, but so far, blood and tissue samples aren’t commonly being taken remotely, though there are devices in the works that may soon become readily available.

Until those devices go mainstream, you could maintain the anonymity of a virtual STD test by having blood taken by your local family doctor or healthcare clinic nurse and sent on to your treating physician or directly to a laboratory–there are direct-to-lab services available online that don’t need the authorization of a doctor.

Despite the challenge of doing remote testing, such a clinic is completely within the realm of possibility. Anyone with a smartphone or a webcam could dial into a video call with an STD expert to discuss their history and personal circumstances, and learn about preventions and treatment. It removes the need to attend a dedicated brick-and-mortar STD clinic, or even explain to your family doctor’s staff why you need to make an appointment.

The rates of STDs in American have increased over the past decade after being in steady decline since the 1970s. Perhaps the introduction of a more anonymous, less public means of learning about and testing for these infections could help halt that trend. Maybe all we need is something everyone can access from the privacy of their own home.

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