UK government funding cuts leave sexual health and HIV care at breaking point
Surveys of members of the British Association of Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) and the British HIV Association (BHIVA) provide new evidence of pressure on over stretched sexual health services and a sector at breaking point.
Access to sexual health and HIV services has been dramatically reduced as a result of changes to the funding and organisation of sexual health services since 2013, according to the medical professionals providing care. Over half (54%) of respondents to a survey of members of the British Association of Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH) reported decreases in the overall level of service access to patients over the past year, with a further 16 per cent saying that access had significantly decreased. In a parallel survey of members of the British HIV Association (BHIVA), three quarters (76%) of respondents said that care delivered to patients in their HIV service had worsened.
With Public Health England (PHE) data showing a 13 per cent increase in attendance of sexual health services between 2013 and 2017 (PHE, June 2018,) it is not surprising that nearly 80 per cent of BASHH respondents (79%) said that they had seen an increased demand for services in the past 12 months. Budgetary pressure means that this demand cannot always be met: more patients are now either turned away or redirected to other parts of the health system. Six in ten (63%) per cent of BASHH respondents said that they had to turn away patients each week, with 19 per cent saying that they were having to turn away more than 50 patients on a weekly basis. While most were offered the next available appointment, 13 per cent said that patients were referred to another sexual health provider and four per cent that they were redirected to primary care. Clinicians responding to the survey report that many of the patients who are being turned away have symptoms of potential infection.
Reduction in prevention, cytology and mental health services
Both surveys revealed significant reductions in services such as the delivery of HIV prevention activities, outreach to vulnerable populations, cervical cytology and psychosexual health services. Three quarters of BHIVA members (75%) said that there had been an impact on access to HIV prevention advice and condoms, with 63 per cent saying access had been reduced; 44 per cent of BASHH members said that HIV prevention services had decreased. Almost half (47%) of BASHH members reported reductions in the provision of cervical cytology functions, reflected by BHIVA members, who also said that cervical screening had been halved (reduced access reported by 49.5%). This is of particular concern in the context of a fall in national cervical screening coverage and the higher risk of HPV related cancer in women with HIV.
More than 40 per cent (42%) of BASHH respondents reported reduced provision of psychosexual health care, mirrored by a similar number (41%) of BHIVA members, who said that access to psychology input for HIV related mental health problems had been reduced. This is despite the higher risk of mental health issues the HIV population faces. Nearly half of BASHH members (47%) also said that care for vulnerable populations had reduced.
STI screening and HIV testing
More than 40 per cent (41%) of BHIVA members said that access to sexual health screening had been reduced, despite HIV positive people being at greater overall risk of sexually transmitted infections. BASHH members gave a mixed response, with 29 per cent of respondents reporting reductions in STI testing in the past year and 27 per cent increased testing. The BASHH response regarding HIV testing was similarly mixed, with 21 per cent saying there was a decrease and 26 per cent an increase.
The BHIVA survey showed that it is becoming more difficult for people to test for HIV, with 35 per cent of respondents reporting that there is now reduced access to testing in their own location. Although 58 per cent of services offered outreach testing, with a quarter of respondents (26%) saying that it was offered locally in another service, more than half (52%) said access to testing in outreach settings was also reduced. Almost half (47%) of BASHH respondents reported increases in access to online testing in the last 12 months, but it is not yet available in all locations. Although some respondents were optimistic about its role in helping to manage the growing demand for services, others expressed concerns about poor implementation, and suggested it was taking the focus away from face-to-face services.
Funding cuts have also drastically reduced the output of third sector organisations, such as charities and community groups, who have traditionally helped to plug gaps in services with HIV testing, advice and peer support. Nearly 40 per cent of BHIVA respondents said that peer support was no longer offered by their service, with 28 per cent of those that still do saying access to it had been reduced. 70 per cent said that overall the remaining third sector support had worsened, with services stripped back to basics or simply closed down completely.
PrEP availability and reproductive health
The roll-out of the PrEP programme through the IMPACT trial has led to increased availability. Over 70 per cent (71%) of BHIVA respondents said that PrEP is now either available from their service or offered locally by another service (17%) and over 70 per cent (74%) of BASHH respondents reported increased delivery. However, provision remains mixed with 28 per cent of BHIVA respondents saying access is improving, 25 per cent saying it had been reduced, and 11 per cent saying PrEP was not currently on offer locally.
At the same time almost a third (32%) of BASHH respondents reported decreased provision of reproductive health and contraception and a similar percentage (34%) of BHIVA respondents also reported reduced access to these services.
Impact of separation of HIV and GUM on staff and services
Changes since 2013 have in many areas led to previously fully integrated clinics that were able to provide a range of services from a single location now being divided between differently funded suppliers. Patients, particularly people living with HIV, may not be willing or able to travel elsewhere and staff may not be able to access records from other services.
Funding cuts have led to staff not being replaced with a knock-on effect to those remaining and to the level of service they can offer. For example, the loss of Health Advisers and nursing staff can limit support for patients. More than a quarter (27%) of BHIVA respondents reported that access to partner notification
has been affected, yet this is a key method of increasing testing of people at a higher risk of HIV transmission. Although the majority of services (64%) still maintain counselling for the newly diagnosed, close to 30 per cent said that access is reduced.
Staff morale has been affected, with more than 80 per cent (81%) of BASHH survey respondents saying that staff morale had decreased in the last year, with almost half (49%) reporting it had greatly decreased. Respondents to both surveys cited the damaging impact sustained budget cuts were having on staff, as well as the pressures and stresses experienced by retendering, restructuring and the loss of experienced colleagues. Some describe the situation as being “at breaking point” and nearly all are worried about the future: more than 90 per cent (92%) of BASHH respondents said that they were worried, or extremely worried, about the future delivery of sexual health care in England.
Commented BASHH President, Dr Olwen Williams: “Providing high-quality free and open-access care for all those that need it has been the bedrock of sexual health in this country for over a century. Whilst we are doing our utmost to maintain standards in the face of record demand and dramatic increases in infections, such as syphilis and gonorrhoea in recent years, these surveys clearly show that continued cuts to funding are taking their toll. Current levels of sexual health funding are quite simply not sustainable and the pressures they are generating are having a seriously detrimental impact on the morale and wellbeing of staff. Without increased support to match the huge growth in demand, the consequences will likely be disastrous for individuals and our public health as a whole.”
Added BHIVA Chair, Professor Chloe Orkin:“Despite the stated ambition of policy makers to reduce health inequalities this will not be possible without robustly funded, sustainable services. Our survey results provide clear evidence that we need to upgrade, not reduce, services if we are to support and protect vulnerable populations. We have made huge strides in the control of HIV, so it is particularly worrying to see that important aspects of HIV care, such as access to prevention services, testing and mental health support, have been reduced. Public Health England (PHE) figures show a 17 per cent fall in new diagnoses, which it attributes to large increases in HIV testing (PHE, September 2018.) It therefore makes no sense to make it more difficult for people to test, as shown by the reduced access to testing in clinics and outreach locations our members report.”
BHIVA/BASHH press release. Government funding cuts leave sexual health and HIV care at ‘breaking point’. (28 September 2018).