STD Tests: There’s an App for That

A controversial new app helps you obtain and share STD test results

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A screenshot of the Hula iPhone app that shares STD test result information

Hula, a new iPhone app, is hoping to help you get lucky…safely.  The app points users to the best STD test centers, can receive their results and can even privately share said results with partners through the app — a process which is of course called “unzipping.”

(And the puns don’t even end there. The app’s called Hula because it helps “get you lei’d,” according to the developers.)

Hula and its light-hearted touch are getting endorsements from some public health experts for promoting STD awareness. An astounding 20 million new STDs are diagnosed in the U.S. every year and costs $16 billion in medical costs annually. The most recent survey in 2008 found that 110 million Americans have STDs or STIs (and many go unreported).  And, fewer students are practicing safe sex. A recent study released by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada found that nearly 50% of sexually active college students aren’t using condoms.  The CDC estimates that half of new STD infections occur among  Americans ages 15 to 24.

Many young, at-risk Americans don’t know to get tested — let alone where to do so — and even if they do, tracking down results of those tests isn’t easy.   Currently, the model at short-staffed health clinics across the country has been “no news as good news” — a system that causes patients anxiety and makes it impossible to hand evidence of a clean bill of health to a sexual partner. Plus, even patients with positive results aren’t always notified.

Hula’s makers aim to begin to repair this broken system by allowing patients to easily receive, understand and share their test results on their iPhones. Once a lab uploads a user’s raw results to Hula (with the user’s permission), a trained Hula employee translates lab lingo into understandable diagnosis. A “nonreactive” result for a syphilis test shows up as simply “negative” on your app. These results can be messaged to a partner, warning them to get tested or sending them the all-clear without an embarrassing phone call.

But there are of course legal and privacy concerns. Hula helps patients provide the paperwork that gives clinics permission to share their personal medical information, but clinics are still wary. Susan Philip, chair of the board of directors of the National Coalition of STD Directors in San Francisco thought the app was “interesting and provocative,” but legal concerns forced the city to turn down requests from Hula users to receive and forward their information through the app, according to Scientific American. On the user side, some fear that sharing health information on an app can be insecure.

Health experts also worry that the app offers sexually active users a false sense of security. While Hula results are reported with a time stamp, users may acquire an STD between the time they are tested and the time they receive their results. “It’s an innovative concept and it’s targeting the right age, but my concern is it gives the suggestion that you are [STD-] negative,” Patrick Chaulk, acting deputy commissioner for the Baltimore City Health Department Division of Disease Control, told Scientific American. (This would of course be true of paper results too.)

Hula is currently free, though the company hopes to monetize when they become more popular. Given privacy concerns, that may be an uphill battle. But for now, the app is embarking to do something nobody has really done before — make the STD conversation less awkward.

READ MORE: Why Young People Aren’t Practicing Safe Sex