Tuesday, March 31, 2009

OSU Student's E-cards notify partners of STDs

E-cards notify partners of STDs

When a student tests positive for an STD, Ohio State alerts the student's sexual partners. But the university has not yet adopted one of many new electronic communication systems used across the country, such as inSPOT.org, to improve this communication.

Katye Miller, wellness coordinator for the OSU Student Wellness Center, said the health department's Disease Intervention Specialist, or DIS, works with students who test positive for certain STDs to list and contact all sexual partners.

"They do a very good job of following up with clients and will call, e-mail, go to a house, etc. to find a person to recommend testing," Miller said in an e-mail. The Wellness Center is mandated by the state to use this system.

"We have always had to use this service in the Student Wellness Center as we are an Ohio Department of Health (ODH) testing site," she said.

The Wilce Student Health Center uses the same system.

"If it's something that we have to report to the health department, then the health department actually follows up on partner tracking," said Roger Miller, Preventative Medicine Physician for Student Health Services at Ohio State. "The only partner notification that we participate in is what the city health department does." Most of the time, the process is anonymous.

In 2004, a nonprofit organization, Internet Sexuality Information Services Inc., developed the Web site inSPOT.org to combat the spread of sexually transmitted infections. The online notification system has become a popular means of alerting sexual partners through e-cards of possible exposure to disease. Senders can select from a variety of e-cards, add a personal message and choose whether or not to send the message anonymously.

"I think this system is terrific," Miller said. "The thing I like the most about it is that as a recipient of one of those notices, you're automatically directed to where you can go for care."

Currently, 10 states and nine cities are registered with the site. For the registered states and cities, the Web site provides information about nearby testing and treatment centers.

For those who wish to send an e-card to someone not living in one of the geographical areas featured, inSPOT.org recommends including a personal message with information about local places to get tested.

The site also contains general information about transmission and prevention.

"There was a lot of good educational material there," Miller said. "It looked pretty well done."

Staff members at the Student Health Center have considered a system involving electronic communication but found that the task had many pitfalls.

"As soon as you put something out that's related to health, unless there are all the appropriate disclaimers and things with it, it gets a little bit difficult," Miller said. "It's probably something that the City of Columbus or the Columbus Public Health Department would have to take up."

But Miller said an electronic system such as inSPOT.org would benefit both clinics and patients.

"It allows [clinics] to focus more on actually evaluating and treating the people that need it rather than spending time on the phone trying to track down people that may or may not ever come in for care," he said.

From a patient's perspective, he said, "sometimes there are occasions where all you know about someone is their e-mail address. If that's the case, then it gives you an avenue to warn them."

After hearing about inSPOT.org and exploring the Web site, Miller said he would consider informing students of this resource.

"One drawback to this type of program if you do it for a whole community is obviously you're going to lose people who don't have Internet connections," he said. "But for the college health population รข€¦ everybody has access to it."

One concern he expressed was potential abuse of the site's anonymity. "The fact that people don't have to be identified means that you could probably do some really nasty stuff to somebody you don't like," he said.

According to the site, such misuse is prohibited. Those responsible for malicious behavior face "immediate and permanent suspension from the site."

In seeking medical attention, inSPOT.org urges e-card recipients to "use their own good judgment."

To create an inSPOT for Columbus or Ohio, a replication fee is required. As government agencies cope with dwindling funds, implementation of the system might depend on the amount of money involved in the transaction.

The first step toward getting Columbus to join the inSPOT community, Miller said, would be to get a group of students to express interest in the system to the Columbus Public Health Department.

"If it's not too costly," he said, "it might be something that they would respond to."

Krista Henneck can be reached at henneck.1@osu.edu.