Athlone Institute of Technology has launched a comprehensive student sexual health service to meet the needs of its growing student population – 61% of whom are aged 18-24 and are classified as ‘high risk’ for sexually transmitted infections.
The innovative nurse-led service will be overseen by a consultant specialist in genitourinary medicine and used as a model of best practice for community-based healthcare across the technological higher education and primary care sector.
Funded by the Sláintecare Integration Fund, the service will reduce the substantial medical, non-medical and economic costs associated with sexually transmitted infection and address the general upward trend in STI notifications, the greatest burden of which falls among those aged under 25 and men who have sex with men.
The pioneering sexual health service will be delivered directly to students in the context of the campus community, ensuring equitable access in familiar surroundings which promotes patient comfort and ultimately prevents and reduces the burden of sexually transmitted infections.
“We’re geographically disadvantaged in that we don’t have a hospital in Athlone and these kinds of specialised services are typically provided in a hospital setting,” Institute Nurse and Health Centre Co-ordinator Laura Tully explained. “The majority of our feeder counties are also without a comprehensive sexual health service so if students don’t have a service back home or at college, well then they don’t have a service.”
Conscious that many STIs don’t have symptoms, Nurse Tully set up an asymptomatic ‘mini-screening’ clinic service for Chlamydia and Gonorrhoea in 2015 to counteract rising incidences of sexually transmitted infections in Athlone. In line with national trends, the number of cases detected had soared.
As Athlone and the Midlands region are completely underserved, students with confirmed infection or present symptoms of infection are required to travel to either Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe or Midlands Regional Hospital in Mullingar, to receive specialised treatment.
“Working on the frontline, I was seeing that 90% of students being referred to specialist clinics with respect to their sexual health weren’t attending for a variety of reasons. Students have reported distance, travel time, the expense of travel, and timing of the clinics as impediments to attending and receiving treatment. This has given rise to a major public health concern as STIs are significant public health issue,” Nurse Tully explained.
“What was happening then was that students were presenting inappropriately to the acute care system. Local out of hours GPs were inundated which is just not the right place or time so this service on a community campus will undoubtedly result in a reduction on the burden on acute care services and ultimately reduce the future healthcare needs of the community.”
The successful Sláintecare Integration Fund projects demonstrate how innovative thinking can bring about meaningful and long-lasting change to health and social care in Ireland. These projects show how joined-up thinking and working in partnership can help us reach Sláintecare’s goals of shifting the majority of care to the community, reducing waiting lists and improving experiences for patients and staff across the health and social care system in Ireland.
The service will ensure that students can access comprehensive and age-appropriate sexual health education and /or information and will have access to appropriate prevention and promotion services which will ultimately encourage the development of a healthy sexuality throughout life; enhance people’s lives and relationships; reduce negative outcomes such as STIs and crisis pregnancies, and create an environment that supports sexual health and wellbeing.
The service will be delivered in line with the aims of the HSE National Sexual Health Strategy (2015-2020) and the Healthy Ireland Framework (2013-2025).
An educational powerhouse defined by a commitment to academic excellence, rigour and applied education, Athlone Institute of Technology has enjoyed considerable successes in the academic arena this year, most notably being named ‘best in class’ for research across the technological higher education sector. Further solidifying its reputational prowess, the institute was recently awarded ‘Best Academic Partnership’ at the prestigious national Education Awards for its part in developing SURE, Ireland’s first academic network dedicated to promoting undergraduate STEM research across the technological higher education sector. These accolades build upon the institute’s success in winning the Sunday Times Good University Guide ‘Institute of Technology of the Year’ award in 2018.