For decades, Planned Parenthood has provided millions with STD testing and treatment. This week, the organization launched a mobile app that lets people order a confidential STD test through their phone, without needing to travel to a clinic.
The service, called Planned Parenthood Direct, charges $149 for a urine testing kit for chlamydia and gonorrhea, the two most common STDs in the United States. If it comes back positive, Planned Parenthood will send a prescription to a local pharmacy for treatment.
"We understand that life gets busy, and this way, consumers can access STD testing without needing to make an appointment," says Jill Balderson, vice president of health innovation at Planned Parenthood. "They can order a kit to their home, send the samples back, and get their results securely and discreetly."
Planned Parenthood is piloting the service in California, with hopes of eventually taking the program national. There are also some ambitions to expand the app's services into other areas of reproductive health, particularly to allow birth control prescriptions without a doctor's visit.
At the same time, as mobile apps like this become more commonplace, there is some worry that patients will miss out on the valuable counseling that happens in a doctor's office.
STD tests, delivered to a patient's door
The Planned Parenthood Direct app is pretty straightforward, opening with screens that explain what services it offers and how patients can use them. People pay for the service with a debit or credit card just like they would on any other mobile platform.
Planned Parenthood then sends a discreet testing kit to the patient's address within two to four days after ordering. After patients send back a urine sample, they'll get a notification from the app about their test results. If they test positive for chlamydia, the app can transmit a prescription directly to a local pharmacy for pickup. If they test positive for gonorrhea, the app prompts them to make an appointment at a local clinic for treatment, which is an injection.
The app offers two big advantages over doctor visits
There are two big advantages to visiting Planned Parenthood's mobile app versus one of their clinics: privacy and convenience.
Williams thinks privacy could matter a lot to those who live in smaller towns, where anyone's comings and goings could be easier to see. She also expects that men who might not think about going to a Planned Parenthood clinic for treatment might be a bit more open to using the app.
Then there's the convenience factor: the app is available at any point and delivers results just as quickly as a clinic visit would.
Will patients miss out on in-person care?
Planned Parenthood officials hope that more convenient access to reproductive health services will help people get care they might otherwise put off. But the move towards mobile health services comes with trade-offs: conversations about other health-care issues that might come up during an STD visit — a discussion about contraceptives, for example — won't happen.
Mobile apps still can't do everything that an actual doctor visit can, even for simple services like birth control. The STD test, for example, can't test for HIV, syphilis, or HPV, which all require blood work. And the most effective reversible birth controls are IUDs and the implant, both of which must be inserted by a health professional.
"Undoubtedly, there are trade-offs," Williams says, "But we think that, on the balance, this is going to positively effect women's health."
Still, Williams and Planned Parenthood see the trade-off as worthwhile: that convenience and privacy will ultimately be a big benefit to people who wouldn't make it into the clinic otherwise.
"Online care shouldn't replace a relationship with a provider," Balderson says. "It's one avenue to increase convenience, but we're also looking to make sure we refer to health-care centers when we need to, as well."