How the internet and technology can help with gay male sexual health issues

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by Craig Takeuchi

Thanks to the internet and social technology, it’s now far easier for gay men or men who have sex with men (MSM) to access information and content about LGBT issues in the privacy of their own home or from remote locations outside of city centres than having to go to bookstores, libraries, or public places, or traveling or relocating to cities, as in the past.

But what are some effective ways to use this access to (and dissemination of) information when it comes to sexual health issues, such as sexually-transmitted infections (STIs)?

A panel discussion at the 12th annual Gay Men’s Health Summit held by the Community-Based Research Centre at SFU Harbour Centre in November addressed this topic.

Panel members from organizations across Canada discussed how internet and mobile technology can be used for campaigns to improve gay male health and combat stigma.

Getting the sex you want

Toronto’s Dan Gallant from the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance of Ontario talked about their website The Sex You Want.

The alliance is a network of frontline workers, researchers, policy makers, community members, and more who are addressing the sexual health needs of Ontario men.

The Sex You Want, which has been in development for over a year, is designed to help reduce gaps in knowledge that contribute to stigma, to help empower gay men in making informed decisions about sex, and to raise awareness of various options for prevention strategies.

Gallant said they have tried to incorporate both scientific evidence and a sex-positive attitude incorporated into content, while making it enjoyable to browse through.

In line with all of that, they chose to use a variety of forms of communication, including text, infographics, and comics, along with illustrations and animation instead of photos to avoid any complications of individuals revoking the use of their image.

Getting checked online

Troy Grennan, a physician lead at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, talked about how stigma can lead to the avoidance of healthcare, including seeking STI testing, treatment, or information.

He pointed out how mobile and internet technologies can help to address gaps and overcome barriers to testing and care. For instance, online resources can help to reach MSM (men who have sex with men, who may not identify as LGBT) or men who live in rural areas who face greater challenges in getting tested and may be at greater risk of infection.

For instance, Grennan pointed out that many Vancouver clinics are facing increases in capacity and often have to turn away people, particularly individuals with non-urgent issues, due to lack of time.

Other issues include clinic hours, whether or not male or female service providers are available as options, and finding providers who are easy to talk to about LGBT issues.

He said that the internet and technology can play a role in home-testing, partner notification (or the use of electronic means to inform others that they may have been exposed to possible infection) online outreach (to have online conversations and ask questions), online counselling, sending test results by email or text messages, medication reminders, and check-ins about symptoms.

Grennan explained that BCCDC’s website Get Checked Online is like a virtual clinic which helps to “improve sexual health by increasing uptake in frequency of testing, acceptability of testing, and also, as a result of all that, improve increased timeliness of diagnosis, which again are critical factors in times where there are high rates in STIs.”

At the site, users can fill out account profile, which helps to determine what testing is necessary. If testing is needed, users can print out a requisition form, which they can take to LifeLabs location in B.C. At the labs, specimens are taken, such as blood and urine. Self-collected swabs for throat and rectal samples were introduced a few months ago.

Users receive an email notification when results are ready. If there are any positive results or problems with samples, users receive a message that they need to call to speak with someone.

Getting the Buzz

RÉZO codirector Frédérick Pronovost from Montreal talked about how his organization developed the app MonBuzz as an online intervention to inform users about the risks of substance use in relation to sexual health.

He said the app was designed to help individuals make informed decisions about drug use as well as to provide information and resources for MSM populations who are sometimes challenging to reach.

Pronovost said that when they conducted focus groups, participants said they wanted something that informed them about risk but wasn’t judgmental or a killjoy. They also didn’t want anything that overly referred to substance use or sexual identity.

He explained that they had to balance the needs of gay communities with their scientific team and IT firm in creating something achievable yet affordable.

Getting on Facebook

SFU PhD student and BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS research assistant Kiffer Card presented some of the results of a study on how Facebook is used to spread messages.

He said that they took a look at several Vancouver organizations serving local gay community by examining metrics and how users interacted with content

In a close-knit community like Vancouver, he said that they found that dedicated efforts zeroing on specific issues can have an influential effect throughout the city, as in the example of CBRC’s Resist Stigma campaign.

“We see that not only did Resist Stigma increase their discussion around stigma but a lot of the other community-based organizations [did] too and it shows that a focused effort can actually improve the theme or the topic for all the other organizations as well,” he said.

Other findings revealed that Facebook posts in the morning performed better than during or after work hours, there was little difference between post performances on weekdays or weekends, positive messages performed more effectively than things like sarcasm, and asking questions also heightened engagement.

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