(Reuters Health) - For women, greater access to primary care providers may be linked to a lower risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), a U.S. study suggests.
“A lack of health care access can translate to more people with undiagnosed and untreated STIs,” said lead study author Danielle Haley of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Regular screening can help ensure that people who have an STI are aware of the infection and get proper treatment,” Haley said by email. “Screening also helps identify and treat sex partners who may also have STIs.”
Haley’s team examined data on 666 women in five southern states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina) who joined a study about HIV.
Overall, these women typically lived in communities where about 74% of residents had primary care providers, the study team reports in Sexually Transmitted Diseases, online August 2.
Women were 43 years old on average, and 71% were HIV-positive when they joined the study between 2013 and 2015; the vast majority were black.
Overall, about 11% of the women had at least one STI confirmed in lab tests.
After accounting for insurance and individual patient characteristics, each four-percentage-point increase in neighborhood residents with primary care providers was associated with 39% lower odds that women would have an STI.
Researchers didn’t find an association between women’s odds of having a STI and the proportion of residents in their communities who had health insurance.
Access to primary care influenced the odds of STIs regardless of socioeconomic status, the study also found.
One limitation of the study is that it was too small to tell how access to care influenced the odds of specific STIs, only the overall chances that women might get at least one STI, the authors note. Because so many of the participants were HIV-positive and had agreed to be part of a long-term study, their odds of STIs also might not be the same as those of other women.
Even so, the findings underscore the importance of routine checkups, said Dr. William Miller, a public health researcher at the Ohio State University in Columbus who wasn’t involved in the study.
“They should see their physician regularly and talk about their sex life with the physician, even if the physician doesn’t bring it up,” Miller said by email.
Women still have options if they lack insurance or a primary care provider, Miller added. Many county and city health departments provide STI screenings and treatment, as do nonprofit clinics.
And they shouldn’t forget prevention.
“To protect themselves, it’s still all about condoms, a message that has been lost a bit in recent years,” Miller said.
Each year, an estimated 20 million new STIs occur in the U.S. alone, half among young people ages 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sex Transm Dis 2017.