Featured image for How STI Testing Brands Are Destigmatizing Sexual Health

How STI Testing Brands Are Destigmatizing Sexual Health

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 09/26/2022 | 5 Minute Read

We live in an era of convenience, and healthcare is no different. Telehealth appointments and Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) prescription drugs have made waiting hours at the doctor’s office or stopping by the pharmacy a thing of the past. COVID only amplified the need for these services. Between people’s trepidation at going out and severe staffing shortages, many folks skip out on medical care

That includes routine STI testing—and now the United States is seeing a surge in sexually transmitted infections.

But could at-home testing kits be the solution? And how are these brands and tests appealing to consumers to hopefully help reduce transmission in the future?

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The STI testing that most individuals are familiar with involves going to the doctor or a clinic, getting tested (which may require a blood sample, urine sample, a swab of the genital area, or a combination of all three), and then waiting for results. COVID, however, put a strain on this process in the US. According to the National Coalition of STDs, “almost all sexual health clinics in the country have been forced to either shut down or to drastically limit hours and services.” But the ability to test from home means that people can continue their necessary healthcare without worrying about COVID exposure.

The convenience aspect also adds a layer of accessibility for those who may not be able to make it into a clinic or take time off of work. “A patient can complete this entire visit from their home,” said Amy Lafayette, director of marketing & communications at Planned Parenthood Northern New England (PPNNE), the region’s largest provider of sexual and reproductive health care services. The PPNNE now also offers at-home STI testing as one of their services, in addition to all of the other services provided at Planned Parenthood. “Sixty percent of our patients have low incomes, and transportation can be a challenge. This service eliminates the need to drive or coordinate transportation.”

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Cultural stigma also prompts patients to choose at-home testing. Katelyn Lilley and Collin Guilbeau, Peer Educators, explained that people don’t want to talk about STIs because, quite simply, STIs get spread through sexual interactions, and social norms surrounding sex in the United States remain conservative. “When we catch other infections such as the flu, a common cold, or strep throat, we don't immediately feel embarrassed,” they wrote for Texas Tech University. However, when the infection is transmitted sexually, we tend to get uncomfortable.”

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The Accessible Wellness trend that Dieline reported on at the end of 2020 highlighted how some brands have a modern, welcoming design that simultaneously makes taboo topics like menopause and menstruation easier to discuss. Contracting a sexually transmitted infection can be viewed as shameful, Amy said, which causes some patients to avoid tests in the first place. The effects of some STIs can be harmful and long-lasting, while others are curable with medicine—but patients must know they have an STI in the first place. “Providing at-home STI testing is one small way we can meet patients where they are and ensure their sexual and reproductive healthcare needs are met.”

So a DTC testing kit solves problems for patients regarding convenience, but well-designed kits shipped directly to consumers will ideally combat the stigma as well. That all starts with education.

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Something that you’ll notice on the sites for companies like Everlywell and TBD Health is the presence of a “Learn” button. In addition to purchasing STI testing kits (among other health testing kits), these links send visitors to the company’s blog with content reviewed by medical professionals, like Can You Have an STI Without Symptoms? or How to Tell Your Partner You Have an STD. Knowledge is power, and by openly having these conversations and approaching sexual health without judgment, patients can see that STI testing—and STIs—are not something to feel shame over.

These brands also want to look approachable and be inclusive. TBD Health, Nurx, and LetsGetChecked do this on their site by featuring photographs of real people—including BIPOC individuals, non-heterosexual partners, and people of various shapes and sizes. Consumers can see themselves reflected in these photos and realize that this kind of healthcare is for everyone, including them.

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A straightforward pharmaceutical design is a reliable route for these brands, but Nurx and TBD Health, in particular, stretch our expectations of what medical supplies look like. Nurx testing kits are color-coded with soothing pastels and a handwriting-inspired font that feels incredibly friendly. TBD Health kits feature large, abstract shapes of eye-catching hues with an unimposing brand mark in the corner. Yes, it’s modern and hip. But it's also a direct reflection of society’s changing views on sex.

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These tests can be well-designed, but they still have to get into people’s hands—and if cost is a hurdle, then at-home testing becomes less appealing. Using a clinic like Planned Parenthood, patients can utilize their insurance, Medicaid, or get seen on a sliding scale to reduce the cost or even make the visit completely free. Some of the at-home testing brands mentioned in this piece also accept insurance—but some don’t, meaning consumers will pay full price to get tested. A reduced copay, thanks to insurance, won't help patients who lack insurance but would still like to do at-home testing.

Something else patients must consider is what they’ll do in the event their test comes back positive. As Mashable pointed out, services like Everlywell include a telehealth appointment, but in-person medical care may still be necessary. Testing is certainly better than not knowing, but a test is just one part of the process, and what people do after receiving the results matters, too.

That first step of testing is indeed vital, though. Options for DTC testing may not yet be as accessible cost-wise as going into a clinic (or procuring an at-home test through a clinic, such as the case with PPNNE). But these brands can help to make the discussion surrounding STIs normal and encourage regular testing—however that works best for an individual. And with climbing infection rates, the United States needs as much help as it can to destigmatize STIs and prevent future spread.

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