The feasibility and acceptability of Internet-based sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing have been demonstrated; however, few programs have included testing for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In British Columbia, Canada, a new initiative will offer online access to chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV testing, integrated with existing clinic-based services. We presented the model to gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) and existing clinic clients through a series of focus groups.
To identify perceived benefits, concerns, and expectations of a new model for Internet-based STI and HIV testing among potential end users.
Participants were recruited through email invitations, online classifieds, and flyers in STI clinics. A structured interview guide was used. Focus groups were audio recorded, and an observer took detailed field notes. Analysts then listened to audio recordings to validate field notes. Data were coded and analyzed using a scissor-and-sort technique.
In total, 39 people participated in six focus groups. Most were MSM, and all were active Internet users and experienced with STI/HIV testing. Perceived benefits of Internet-based STI testing included anonymity, convenience, and client-centered control. Salient concerns were reluctance to provide personal information online, distrust of security of data provided online, and the need for comprehensive pretest information and support for those receiving positive results, particularly for HIV. Suggestions emerged for mitigation of these concerns: provide up-front and detailed information about the model, ask only the minimal information required for testing, give positive results only by phone or in person, and ensure that those testing positive are referred for counseling and support. End users expected Internet testing to offer continuous online service delivery, from booking appointments, to transmitting information to the laboratory, to getting prescriptions. Most participants said they would use the service or recommend it to others. Those who indicated they would be unlikely to use it generally either lived near an STI clinic or routinely saw a family doctor with whom they were comfortable testing. Participants expected that the service would provide the greatest benefit to individuals who do not already have access to sensitive sexual health services, are reluctant to test due to stigma, or want to take immediate action (eg, because of a recent potential STI/HIV exposure).
Internet-based STI/HIV testing has the potential to reduce barriers to testing, as a complement to existing clinic-based services. Trust in the new online service, however, is a prerequisite to client uptake and may be engendered by transparency of information about the model, and by accounting for concerns related to confidentiality, data usage, and provision of positive (especially HIV) results. Ongoing evaluation of this new model will be essential to its success and to the confidence of its users.