Patients are being turned away from sexual health clinics amid concern that a shortage of nurses is affecting services.
At the same time, testing levels for the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are falling and experts from the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) claim that services are at ‘tipping point’.
‘This is a worrying picture of understaffed services going to extreme lengths to try to cope, even turning people away – the last thing a health professional ever wants to do,’ said Helen Donovan, professional lead for public health at the Royal College of Nursing.
‘If people are not able to access services then serious STIs could go undiagnosed and untreated – it is a major risk to public health.’
‘The quality of services is also a grave concern. There are nurse out there doing amazing work, but there are not enough of them with the right skills in the right place as a result of the dangerous recruitment freeze. Effective sexual health services require specialist skills and good quality training, both of which are in short supply.’
Five years ago, the government moved sexual health services to local authorities causing a ‘detrimental recruitment freeze’ according to the RCN.
In this same time frame, the number of young people between 18 and 24 years old getting tested for chlamydia has fallen by nearly 500,000 while there is a higher rate of diagnoses – which is approximately 128,000 cases a year.
‘Despite the best efforts of staff to maintain standards, persistent and damaging cuts to the local authority public health budget in recent years have led to clinic closures and a worrying increase in the number of patients being unable to access the care they need,’ said Olwen Williams, president of the BASHH.
‘With the recent emergence of multi-drug resistant gonorrhoea and record levels of syphilis, these cuts have come at the worst possible time. It is therefore vital that the Government reverses the cuts and provides services with the support they desperately need.’
A survey by the RCN found that across 600 nurses in this field many services were severely understaffed and there were few registered nurses working in them – and those who did had an inadequate mix of skills and access to training.
Six out of ten nurses in the survey said that there had been a reduction in the number of registered nurses in their clinic and the majority stated that recruitment freezes were to blame for this shortage.
The RCN has called for more well-planned and well-staffed services to safeguard the public’s health.