A new student sexual health service was launched at the Technological University of the Shannon (TUS ) in Athlone this week, coinciding with SHAG week - a national event intended to raise sexual health awareness.
Available to students by self-referral, the facility is free and offers a comprehensive range of services, including the full testing and treatment of STIs, vaccinations, contraception advice, pregnancy testing, PEPSE/PREP, health promotion, condoms and information resources.
These specialised services are typically provided in a hospital setting; however, as Athlone is without a hospital, students were having to travel significant distances to access care, Nurse Laura Tully, who is the service’s project lead, explained.
“Students previously faced travel times of up to one hour to a specialised clinic and cited barriers to attending, such as fear of stigma, travel time, costs and time missed from college, as reasons not to attend.
“This service is removing all those barriers for students, ensuring they can get the right care in the right place by the right people,” Ms Tully stated.
Based on a hugely successful Sláintecare-funded pilot service launched by Laura and her team in January 2020, TUS Midlands has been awarded annual funding of €102,412 by the Department of Health (administered by the HSE Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme ) to fund its student sexual health service on a permanent basis.
Data from the pilot service shows it substantially reduced the medical, non-medical and economic costs associated with STIs and helped address the general upward trend in STI notifications seen nationally.
A 1,113 percent increase in the number of students attending the TUS Midlands Student Health Service was recorded, with 51 percent disclosing that they had never before attended a sexual health screening.
“This initiative is having a huge impact on the daily lives of students. It has been the highlight of my 22-year career in nursing to have been afforded the opportunity to deliver this vital service.
“It is a wonderful and proud feeling to leave work each day knowing that the service and care which you are providing is making a real and tangible difference to the lives of so many,” Ms Tully added.
Used as a model of best practice for community-based healthcare across both the technological higher education and primary care sector, this is the first fully integrated sexual health, contraception and health promotion service available to students on campus.
Dr Thomas Walsh, who provides clinical leadership, governance and oversight to the TUS Midlands’ nursing team, as well as specialised care during on-campus clinics, emphasised its importance.
“This is an invaluable service for TUS students, providing important sexual health and contraceptive care as well as vital education without cost, in a space that is easily accessed, where students feel comfortable,” he said.
“We are delighted to now be able to offer this invaluable facility to students on a permanent basis, thanks to the success of the pilot scheme run by Laura and her team.
“With those aged 25 and under being most at risk of STIs, this service is vital to our students’ wellbeing and will be key to enhancing their knowledge and awareness of STIs, diagnoses and early treatment and decreasing stigma and embarrassment,” Frances O’Connell, VP of Student Education and Experience, welcoming the funding, remarked.
The new service is aligned to the HSE Midlands Regional Hospital Mullingar GUM/STI service under the clinical governance of Dr Dominic Rowley, a consultant in genitourinary medicine (sexual health and HIV ).