Demand on the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre has been mounting in the past decade. (ABC News: James Hancock)
Victoria has just one free, government-funded sexual health clinic that anyone can drop into — for a population of more than six million people.
- The Victorian Government is reviewing a report into the state’s sexual health services
- The rising rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) has seen a boost in demand for testing
- The Melbourne Sexual Health Centre has been forced to temporarily close at times due to the waits
By comparison, New South Wales has 37 similar centres across a state with only a slightly bigger population.
Having only one in Victoria means getting seen can be tough.
James Dominguez has been going to the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre a couple of times a year for the past 15 years, but said the wait times had been getting worse.
James Dominguez has waited up to three hours to be tested then turned away. (ABC News: James Hancock)
“It’s just been really busy. It’s been a three or four-hour wait,” Mr Dominguez said.
He was pleased to say that “so far everything has been fine” with his test results.
“I’m safe and I’m keeping the people I care about safe,” he said.
Service ‘struggling’ to meet demand
The clinic itself is in a rather nondescript building on Carlton’s Swanston Street, on the northern edge of Melbourne’s CBD.
Although many might walk straight past it, hundreds of thousands of people have been there.
The number of yearly consultations almost doubled in the past 10 years from 31,452 to 55,862.
In 2019, the service is on track to rack up more than 60,000 consultations.
Making matters worse for those like Mr Dominguez, sometimes the hours-long wait can be for nothing.
“I’ve waited for three hours and then been told actually we won’t be able to see you today,” he said.
The clinic’s own survey last year showed patients “least liked” the waiting times.
High demand has forced it to temporarily shut on a few occasions, according to director Christopher Fairley.
“Our staff are fabulous but they’re tired,” Professor Fairley said.
“The service is at the stage where it is struggling to manage.”
Professor Fairley said the clinic’s popularity has left staff struggling to manage the demand. (ABC News: James Hancock)
Hook-up apps fuel rise in STIs
There are a few reasons for the clinic’s growing popularity, and being free clearly helps.
It is anonymous, so your family GP does not have to know. And no Medicare card is required.
Another big reason is the increasing number of international students at the nearby Melbourne and RMIT universities.
“They’re not sure of what their overseas health insurance will actually cover,” sexual health worker Peter Locke said.
Mr Locke runs another free sexual health service, PRONTO in Fitzroy, which only sees men who have sex with men.
He said the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre was an important go-to for international students.
“The more people that we have tested, the more people we have treated and the less ongoing transmission of STIs [sexually transmitted infections],” he said.
Another reason for the clinic’s popularity is rising STI rates across Australia and other developing countries.
Over the past decade, the number of gonorrhoea cases seen by the clinic leapt more than 1,000 per cent from 193 cases in 2008 to 2,333 last year.
Syphilis cases also soared by almost 300 per cent from 93 in 2008 to 361 last year.
Professor Fairley said there were several reasons for the STI increase, including fewer people using condoms and “hook-up” apps like Tinder, Bumble and happn.
He said the worrying statistics showed the importance of free, regular and easily assessible sexual health testing.
The rate of syphilis and gonorrhoea cases has risen dramatically in the past decade. (ABC News: James Hancock)
“You can’t have a situation where someone with a genital ulcer from syphilis comes to a service like this and can’t be seen or has to wait two hours and decides to walk out,” Professor Fairley said.
“That means that those infections will be passed on unnecessarily.”
Dianne Hill from Women’s Health Victoria said those working at the coalface, like GPs, also needed to be given better training because not everyone wanted to visit a specialist STI clinic.
“If people feel they have to go to a specialist clinic sometimes I think that might increase the stigma for those people.”
The Victorian Government has been reviewing the state’s sexual health services.
Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said a report has been completed and she was “carefully considering” its findings.
“We want all Victorians to be able to access the world-class healthcare they need right across the system,” she said.