Doctors Call For National Sex Health Funding

Sexual health care should be funded nationally in England to ensure people do not miss out, campaigners say. They warn that government funds are not getting through because local healthcare providers need to use the money in other areas.

A survey of sexual health doctors also says patients are often unable to book appointments, and that some doctors are having to offer the cheapest HIV drugs.

A Department of Health spokesman said services did need to be improved.

The survey, carried out by the Terrence Higgins Trust, the British HIV Association (BHIVA), the British Association for Sexual Health & HIV (BASHH) and Providers of Aids Care and Treatment (PACT), looked at local sexual health services in England in 2006.

The government announced in 2004 that £300m would be set aside for sexual health.

But the survey, which has been carried out for the last five years, has consistently found that although the government is allocating money, it is not passed on to clinics by primary care trusts (PCTs).

Staff at 65 out of the 152 PCTs in England responded to the study.

Just under 60% said money had been diverted away from sexual health services and over half said they often or sometimes had to turn patients away.

They said the introduction of a 48-hour access target meant clinics were often focused on offering appointments within that time, and would not let patients book slots further ahead.

Other clinics were offering walk-in appointments, but patients often had to arrive extremely early and queue in public.

In addition, a third of the doctors said they were either discussing or had already implemented restrictions on prescribing of HIV drugs, meaning patients were given the cheapest option.

The survey does not show patients are suffering from the change, but the campaigners fear it could be a growing trend.

Lisa Power, head of policy at the Terrence Higgins Trust, said it was crucial people could easily access clinics.

“We know that of the people with sexually transmitted infections who have difficulty getting appointments, a third will continue to have sex,” she said.

“This is a national problem that’s not being addressed at a local level. The only thing that’s ever going to work is if money is ring-fenced.

“This is not politically popular, but it would seem to be the only way to ensure money for sexual health services is not diverted elsewhere.”

Dr Gill Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents primary care trusts, said: “We have called for a separate investment fund for health improvement to prevent longer-term projects being squeezed by the more immediate demands of running a health service.

“Currently, initiatives to improve long-term health of communities compete for resources with day-to-day service provision.”

Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley agreed funding should be ring-fenced.

“Public health budgets need to be ring-fenced… to prevent short-term financial pressures undermining long-term public health strategies, and connect national aspirations with local action,” he said.

But Dr Mike Dixon, chairman of the NHS Alliance, said ring-fencing was an “unrealistic idea”.

He said the move now was towards GP practices commissioning care themselves, and that might be the way to improve sexual health care.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said improving sexual health services was an NHS priority and that significant progress had been made, although she agreed more work was needed.

But she added: “Ultimately, funding arrangements are a matter for the NHS, and PCTs must be free to prioritise their local funding according to local needs.”