Written by Michael Conroy, Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program alumnus
Just over fourteen months ago I completed the longest road trip of my life. I snaked across the hills of the southern tier of New York State, shot across the old industrial plains of the Midwest, and found myself in St. Louis, Missouri. I spent my summer learning introductory public health from lectures at the Institute for Public Health at Washington University and began a focused research project examining sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in St. Louis.
The facts are grim: St. Louis has some of the highest rates of STIs of any city in the United States, the city’s public health department is underfunded, and the rates of some STI are increasing. During the summer, I worked with Dr. Hilary Reno to conduct a telephone survey of patients who had been treated for chlamydia or gonorrhea in Washington University’s emergency department. What was our main result? Patients who get treated for STIs in the emergency department leave a lot of disconnected phone numbers.
Several months after completing the telephone survey project, Dr. Reno offered to hire me for a second summer to work on a vamped up version of the experiment. This summer we implemented a quality improvement project in the emergency department. Nurses began collecting confidential phone numbers from patients tested for STIs. We found that when patients were asked for contact information from a medical practitioner in the exam room, not at a registration desk, patients were much more likely to leave working phone numbers and answer their phones. We used this additional contact information to try and improve patients’ treatments outcomes. Dr. Reno and I called patients to tell them about test results, refer them for further treatment, and helped them plan follow up appointments. By the end of the summer, we had documented clinically significant improvements in the proportion of patients receiving test results and getting treatment for STIs.
Now, at the end of my second summer in St. Louis, I see that this project does not stand alone, but takes place among a number of bold initiatives aimed to combat STIs in St. Louis. These include the STI Regional Response Coalition (STIRR), aiming to better coordinate multiple preexisting efforts, and the County’s Get Tested STL initiative, which is a vibrant advertising campaign to increase awareness of STIs in St. Louis. Together these efforts are taking the first steps needed to address STIs rates in St. Louis. They will stand as key players in the upcoming fight to address sexual health concerns in St Louis.