The British Association for Sexual Health and HIV - BASHH - is one of the UK's leading professional organisation for all aspects of sexual health care. They set standards and guidelines, run training and share the latest information about sexual health and HIV. Their work helps doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners stay up to date with best practice and innovation.

Every year they hold a conference, where BASHH members present their latest research and clinicians can learn from each other. Last week the SH:24 team was in Llandudno, Wales for the 2023 BASHH conference. And we took a lot of research - and cake - with us.

A table set out with SH:24 branded items, including pencils and notebooks. In the background, you can see cupcakes decorated with the SH:24 logo.

Offering sexual health services digitally, as we do at SH:24, is still quite new. As we grow, we’re learning more and more about how an online service can help you manage your sexual health needs.

So this year at the BASHH conference, 6 members of our team shared the research they’ve done on different areas of digital sexual health and what they’ve found.

We sat down with a few of them to find out what they’ve discovered and how it can help change sexual health for all.

Sexual health at home

Rhiana Mills, research associate, has been looking into how new technology can help you manage your sexual health - without heading to a clinic.

Her first presentation looks at how chatbots can help people with their sexual and reproductive health, including contraception. The research found 35 chatbots that give different types of support. Rhiana said “Most of them give information on a broad range of topics, such as SnehAI which provides information on sexual health and healthy relationships to teenagers in India. But there are some exceptions, like Nurse Nisa, a chatbot which specifically gives information on abortion.”

The way that chatbots work, like instant messaging a friend, means they break complicated information down into chunks. This can make things easier to understand. Plus they’re completely anonymous, non-judgmental, and can answer you immediately, which are real benefits when you need to ask difficult questions. But does this mean we’ll be getting sexual health advice from Siri? Rhiana thinks it’s more likely that in the near future, chatbots will help us book appointments and fill in forms. And she was surprised to see how many chatbots had women’s names. “Like Alexa and Siri, chatbots tend to have feminine personas. We didn't find a single masculine persona! In fact, chatbots that presented as unicorns were more common than masculine personas!”

Remote medical services became familiar to many of us during the Covid lockdown, with phone calls and video calls to your GP or physiotherapist becoming the norm. But can this kind of remote appointment be useful for sexual health as well? Rhiana’s second presentation investigates how video calls over Whatsapp can help people get started with the Sayana Press injectable contraception.

Because you have to inject Sayana Press yourself, you usually need to have an appointment in a clinic so you can be shown how to do this. But getting to a clinic isn’t always easy, convenient or comfortable. Can video calls help? Rhiana thinks they can.

Talking about this small pilot study, she said “We saw that people were very good at self-injecting properly after training via WhatsApp. They told us that having a clinician's encouragement, for example saying 'you're doing great' or 'you can do it', helped them to not feel afraid when self-injecting. We think that digital training might work better for people who find it hard to get to a clinic or want to self-inject privately at home.”

Staying safe

Emily Vokach-Brodsky, user researcher, and Sarah Higgins, senior sexual health nurse, shared what they’ve learnt about how we, and other services, make sure we’re keeping people safe when we’re helping them remotely.

Safeguarding is the responsibility we have to protect the people using our service from harm. This can include finding out what harmful things might be happening in their life and helping someone get support to reduce their risks. Sarah said that on a daily basis, people tell us things that mean we need to check in with them and help them find other services to support them. We do all of this through our digital service and over the phone. Her research, looking at how we assess and handle safeguarding young people in particular, found that people can feel more comfortable in this way. “It all happens in an environment the young person is familiar with and eases the comfortability of the process for them.”

Emily’s research looked at how a range of different digital services, including SH:24, managed safeguarding. It was important to look at digital safeguarding specifically because services are moving online very quickly and, as she said “national guidance about how to do safeguarding in this context is lagging behind.”

When exploring different services as an anonymous ‘mystery shopper’, Emily realised that safeguarding is approached very differently across the services. “Some services have what I've called an 'active screening' approach with questions and resources for people under the age of 18. Other services don't even ask for your age. So a 16-year-old using one service could get a pretty comprehensive e-safeguarding assessment, while another could access sexual health care without ever being asked if they’re okay.”

This research will be used to review our safeguarding work and help us make it the best it can be.

Rhiana, Emily and Sarah weren’t the only members of the SH:24 team presenting at the conference. Our clinical mobilisation and support worker, Stuart Amos-Gibbs, showed and presented his research on HIV diagnosis through at-home tests. And Will Howells, product owner, showed what we’ve learnt from offering a choice between the HIV lab test and the HIV Insti test, which uses just a drop of blood, during National HIV Testing Week 2023.

More about BASHH

We’ll be keeping our site updated with the latest guidelines and advice from BASHH. But to see more about the organisation, head to the BASHH website And you can see more from the BASHH conference on their Twitter account @BASHH_UK

Written by Hel Burrough. Senior Content Designer, SH:24 and Fettle
Last updated at: 02 February 2024
Published on: 03 July 2023