WhatIf Innovation Podcast Series
By: Tessa Law, Mike Galbo, Jeremy Dawkins and Tina Ripperger
We’re excited to introduce the second installment of the ?What If! Innovation podcast series, Being Me. The goal of this podcast is to use the power of insight to spark new perspectives and ideas.
Our healthcare innovators bring this installment to you, as part of a series on disease states.
STI. Sexually transmitted infection. Three words that sound scary, but are getting a little less so everyday. Recent medical advances have made STIs easier than ever to test for and treat. Take HIV, for example. Once a death sentence, it’s now manageable with a daily pill and can be tested for at home. And, Hep C? It’s now completely curable.
Okay, that means that STI rates are going down, right? Wrong. According to a number of recent studies, STI’s are on the rise, and spiking specifically for Millennials and Gen Z. Young people are disproportionally affected by STIs, and an estimated half of all 20 million STIs diagnoses each year occur in people ages 15–24.
So, if STIs are getting easier to test for, treat and even cure, why are more people getting them than ever before? It all boils down to one thing: stigma.
Whitney Carlson was diagnosed with herpes a year and a half ago.
“When I got it I was devastated. How could I be so dumb, how could I let this happen. There’s so much stigma around STIs that I just felt isolated and alone and my dating life was over. Was anyone going to love me again? I couldn’t tell anyone about it because they would be grossed out.”
Imagine you just got a difficult diagnosis, and you were so scared of how people would react that you didn’t know who to talk to. Where do you go?
For Whitney: “I didn’t really feel like I could talk to people in real life about it, and then I found a few people online, and on Twitter, actually.”
Whitney decided to join the conversation happening on Twitter.
“At this point, I still hadn’t told my family, I still hadn’t told the majority of people in my life. It’s only been a year and a half, so when I was first tweeting I didn’t even tweet about having herpes, I just said that stigma prevents people from getting education they need. Then I started getting all this hate back and I’ve been trolled before but never to this extent. It was unreal, I’ve never seen so much hate before from complete strangers. And, I have a thicker skin now but it’s still jarring when people are calling you horrible names or telling you should die or commit suicide.”
The backlash was so extreme that it only proved how real the stigma actually is. But Whitney didn’t want to be a victim of this stigma. She wanted to break down barriers.
Whitney was in pain, but was inspired to act, “It really shook me up for a few days, and I was thinking, I have to say something. The goal of these trolls is to make me feel horrible and powerless and to shut me up. I can’t let them have the last word and stop me from telling my story.”
So Whitney wrote an article, titled Yes I have Herpes, No I’m Not a Degenerate. And, she put it on Facebook and anxiously awaited the response.
What she found, surprised her: “The response has been absolutely incredible, more than anything I could ever imagine. People were messaging me on Twitter and Facebook, about their story. I had a 18 year girl email me saying she thought her life was over, “can you help me”… But that’s what I wanted to happen I guess. The only thing that helped me when I was in a dark place was hearing other peoples stories, and I wanted to be that for someone else.”
The only way to break down stigma is to keep telling stories like Whitney’s. But Whitney’s only one person. If we’re going to open the conversation around sexual health, we all need to join in. So, what’s the best way to keep the dialogue going…?
We live in a society that’s becoming increasingly digital. Gen Z doesn’t even know a world without the Internet. And while people are hypothesizing that staring at our phones all day is affecting our communication skills, using technology is the best way to do something we’ve always feared doing face-to-face: being open about sexual health.
Twitter is just one of many tools that’s breaking down these stigmas. Through hashtags like #ShoutYourStatus and #GetTested, people are finding communities and spreading awareness about sexual health.
Twitter is just the beginning, Tinder recently partnered with Healthvana to help users locate their nearest STI clinic through the app. Scruff, a gay dating app, has taken it a step further by incorporating a field in its users profiles where they can list the date of their last test and their current STI status.
We continue to see exciting new examples pop up every day. Take, Mately, a new digital STI testing platform that aims to integrate both regular testing and status sharing. Take an STI test at home, send it to the company, and receive your results on the Mately app, where you can then easily share it with romantic partners.
So, whether it’s a fully integrated STI testing service or a simple Tweet, let’s start talking about sexual health. We need to get tested, we need to get treated, but, we can’t do this without talking.
“It’s incredible”, says Whitney, “it’s blowing me away how much more we need to talk about this, because people feel they can’t do it in real life so they do it on the internet and while that’s a great medium, we shouldn’t have to be so scared to talk about it.”
What if we could continue to leverage technology and social media to de-stigmatize STIs, allowing people to talk more freely and get the information they need?
What if we made it less intimidating for Gen Z and Millennials to walk into a clinic or ask their doctor for a test?
What if STI tests were opt out instead of opt in? If everyone is getting tested regularly, how would that change the perception of STI’s?
What if stigma was no longer a barrier for people getting the care and treatment they need, for STIs and for all diseases? How many lives would that change?
What if we continue to ask these questions, and get answers?
Understanding is just the beginning. To learn more about ?What If! Innovation and how we deliver solutions that are different not just better, email Tina Ripperger at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow us on Twitter @whatifglobal
Special thanks to Whitney Dawn Carlson for sharing her amazing story.