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‘I can’t tell my mom I’m having sex’

Telehealth startups allow ‘shameless’ access to sexual health products and advice

When Nadia *, a resident of Singapore, went to a local clinic to be tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) three years ago, she left the doctor’s office in shame.

The elderly female doctor there spoke to her and threw a stack of brochures at her “like I’m stupid,” the 24-year-old recalls.

“I felt judged all the time too – like it was my fault I had an infection because I shouldn’t have slept with my boyfriend in the first place,” she said.

But now internet buffs nationwide are being offered alternative options, thanks to a group of telehealth start-ups that have sprung up in the city-state over the past year – all focused on health. sexual.

They allow people to access sexual health products and advice ‘without shame’ – something young people like Nadia say they need, as their attitudes towards sex differ markedly from traditionally held views.

Nadia says she has used Ferne Health – a company that offers STI testing in the privacy of your own home.

After seeing a doctor via a video call on the website, she received a vaginal swab kit in the mail in a discreet package that allowed her to collect samples on his own. A courier picked them up the next day and she received her results within a week.

“Nothing was written on the box so even the courier didn’t know what was inside which was great,” said Nadia, who shares an apartment with her parents and two brothers and sisters.

“My family is very traditional – I am Singaporean and I am also a Malaysian Muslim, so certain things are expected of you. I cannot tell my mother that I am having sex.”

‘The only viable option’

While home STI testing may be common in Europe and the United States, the concept is relatively new in Singapore.

But while experts and users alike agree that such services are long overdue, clinical sex therapist Martha Lee said there are some considerations to consider when signing up.

The results of home test kits can generate false positives depending on how they are administered.

“Cleanliness of the environment and improperly collected samples can affect results – and false results can cause distress and delays in getting the right treatment,” she said.

‘I can’t tell my mom I’m having sex’

Asking local doctors for contraceptives can be an ’embarrassing’ or ‘awkward’ process

Yet for many young Singaporeans, these services represent one of the only viable options for them to get reliable sexual health advice and information.

Fans of these services have said that they appreciate their convenience, which saves them hours traveling to the clinic.

But it is the low-key, “non-judgmental” experience that really draws them to these services.

‘I felt humiliated’

Wayne *, 37, who used a service called Noah – which focuses on men’s sexual health – to treat his premature ejaculation (PE) condition, is a case in point.

“Taking pills for PE is like taking paracetamol for a headache – if you need it you should get it checked out. But men are often afraid to go to the doctor to even admit it. problem, ”he said.

It didn’t help that the GP he saw two years ago made him feel worse about his situation.

“The nurse and doctor kept asking me out loud in front of other people why I was there. I felt humiliated.”

His teleconsultation with Noah, by comparison, was private and made him feel “respected” as a patient. “It was so much better because the whole world really doesn’t need to know what I’m going through.”

“ A delicate process ”

According to the latest edition of the World Values ​​Survey published in February, Singaporeans remained largely conservative on “liberal standards of sexuality”, with 67.3% of respondents saying casual sex is “never or rarely justifiable”.

Pre-marriage abstinence is encouraged in schools, and sex education is designed to help students develop ‘dominant values’ about sexuality that are’ based on the family as the basic unit of society. », Indicates the Ministry of Education on its website.

Accessing sexual health products or testing with the neighborhood GP if you are not married can therefore be an “embarrassing” or “awkward” process, some people told the BBC.

Women in particular do not have access to contraceptive pills without a doctor’s prescription, although condoms are available free of charge at pharmacies and convenience stores.

So companies like Dear Doc, which offer contraceptive subscription plans, and Noah, are a welcome intervention.

All involve virtual consultations with licensed physicians.

‘I can’t tell my mom I’m having sex’

The start-ups all offer virtual consultations with approved doctors

Start-ups certainly see the gap in the market they are filling – and the growing demand for their services proves it.

Noah founder Sean Low said his business’s compound monthly growth rate has been over 50% since launching in June, while Xi Liu of Ferne Health said his business has seen weekly growth since its inception. debuts in September.

Young people are more aware of their sexual health and are looking for ways to be responsible despite obstacles, according to Babes, a local teenage pregnancy support service.

“They want to ask questions about sex, but only if they think they are in a dedicated secure space. These digital health start-ups, specializing in sexual health issues, could be a good platform.”

Nadia agrees, saying that despite the taboos, she knew how important it was to be checked regularly, especially since she was about to start a new relationship.

“It’s the only responsible thing to do, isn’t it? But I know a lot of people don’t because the process hasn’t been easy so far.”

* Names have been changed at their request.

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