STD Testing Using a Home Kit: Pros and Cons

At-home STD tests are now available from multiple companies. (Lauren Hanussak/KQED)

When I heard about home testing for sexually transmitted diseases, I was intrigued. Who doesn't despise that particularly awkward conversation with their doctor? And who doesn't want to skip the waiting room and long line at the lab?

The kit I used is available online for $189 from a company called myLAB Box. Many other companies offer similar tests -- EverlyWell and LetsGetChecked, to name two. The kits cost anywhere from $100 to $400, depending on the number of diseases you're tested for.

Simple Steps

After opening my kit, I saw everything I needed packed neatly into a box about the size of my palm. Following the steps outlined in pictures on the instruction sheet, the entire procedure took less than 15 minutes. First I used a giant Q-tip as a vaginal swab. I doused my ring finger with alcohol and pricked it with a plastic lancet, carefully letting droplets of blood land in circles on a white collection card. After sealing both samples in separate biohazard bags, I shipped the specimens off in a prepaid envelope.

Lesley McClurg uses a lancet to get a blood sample for a home STD test. (Lauren Hanussak/KQED)

I had ordered tests for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV and trichomoniasis -- the basic package. A few days later I received an email confirming that my results were negative. (Unlike George Costanza, of "Seinfeld" fame, I knew that "negative" is good in this context.)

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If any of the tests had come back positive, myLAB Box would have connected me with a physician for a free telemedicine consultation.

Accelerating STD Rates

Health officials think home testing of STDs has the potential to curb accelerating transmission rates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported all-time highs for STDs in 2016, and an estimated 20 million Americans contract an infection through sexual contact every year. Meanwhile, in California, numerous public testing clinics have closed over the past decade, according to the state's Department of Health.

"Many people still face significant challenges getting high-quality sexual health services, including STD testing," a spokesperson said in an email. "This is particularly true of youth, males, and sexual minorities. Patient surveys have demonstrated that individuals don't always feel comfortable talking to their regular medical provider about their risk for STD or interest in STD testing."

Dr. Jennifer Conti, a gynecologist and clinical assistant professor at Stanford University, agrees that home testing increases access. "I think anyone can prick their finger or pee on a stick," she said.

Conti recommends testing every six months if you're sexually active with multiple partners. This can get pricey if you're paying out of pocket. Though insurance companies are required to pay for preventative STD screening under the Affordable Care Act, most providers will not reimburse patients for home tests.

No FDA Approval

If you do decide to purchase a home test, you should know the Food and Drug Administration has only approved two HIV tests for the home market. Anything beyond that, the quality of different products may vary.

“The people who draw your blood in a hospital or in clinic are all trained, and they obtain specimens that have no inconsistency," said Dr. Norman Paradis, an emergency room physician who teaches at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. "But some of the new devices for doing this on yourself at home haven't been validated to the same extent.”

The CEO of myLab Box, Lora Ivanova, said results are tested in a lab meeting the standards of the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments, used by the federal government to certify labs.

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Paradis says the benefits of home testing far outweigh the risks, as long as patients see a doctor when a test comes back positive and when experiencing abnormal symptoms.

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