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English sexual health target at risk, say doctors

Sexual HealthFeb 03, 06

Government plans to reduce waiting times for appointments at sexual health clinics in England to 48 hours cannot be met without a “massive expansion of capacity”, doctors said on Thursday.

They called for local health authorities to spend all the extra money the government has allocated to tackle a rise in sexually transmitted diseases and not keep it back to cover budget holes elsewhere.

“We need a big expansion of the number of nurses, a lot of clinics need better facilities,” said Dr Helen Ward of Imperial College London’s Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology.

At present only half of patients are able to obtain appointments within 48 hours of contacting a sexual health clinic.

“Poor access to sexual health services has been highlighted as one factor contributing to continued increases in sexually transmitted infections,” Ward said in an editorial in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections.

“The government has earmarked money for investment in services, but it is becoming clear that a considerable proportion of this will not reach sexual health clinics as many primary care trusts struggle with deficits and other priorities,” she added.

A study at a sexual health clinic in Leeds, also reported in the journal, found demand was so high it would need 626 appointment slots each week to meet the 48-hour target, more than three times its 181-slot capacity.

The government last week announced that sexual health was one of its six key priorities for the National Health Service and wants to hit its 48-hour waiting limit for sexual health appointments by 2008.

It is giving primary care trusts an extra 300 million pounds to help achieve this, but has not ring-fenced this additional money and local health managers have the freedom to spend it on other services.

Last month a survey by a group of charities found that only a third of local health authorities were planning to improve sexual health services.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said the government had made it clear to primary care trusts that meeting its sexual health targets was a priority.

“The vast amount of money allocated to this area is due to kick in from April of this year and we expect to make a huge difference in the drive towards meeting the clear targets we have set,” the spokeswoman said.

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