Mail-Order STD Tests Make Sharing Results as Easy as Sending a Snap
So. Youre single, its the weekend, and you dont want a rerun of last Saturday nights chocolate chip pancakes a la mode and Gilmore Girls bingefest. Youve already Instagrammed this mornings latte, two gritty urban feet shots, one still life with #buyyourowndamnflowers and its still only six oclock. Is it too early to fire up Tinder? Nah. In the age of the app, you never have to be alone if you dont want to be. And to make sure you dont get more than you bargained for from your hook-up, a number of companies are now offering a way to share STD test results through your phone.
In the last few years, services like myLAB Box, Mately, and GetTested have cropped up to meet millennials where they like to meet sexual partners—online. Each company lets you order up STD tests like a 10-pack of ramen on AmazonFresh, then helps you share the results digitally. With 110 million Americans carrying an STD, these companies are making it easier to have the conversation no one wants to have. But they may have more of an impact on their own bottom lines than on skyrocketing rates of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea.
On the money-making front, these companies have a great model. The tests range in price depending on which service you choose, but youll have to pay out of pocket for all of them. The upside: Insurance companies dont have to know the frequency or results of your tests (neither do and mom and dad, if youre a 25-year-old on your parents plan). The downside is it can get expensive. MyLAB Box kits range from $79 for a single test to $399 for a 10-panel screen. GetTested offers just one, eight-test kit for $199 that covers the most commonly contracted STDs, including HIV and syphilis. When Mately formally launches next year, geared toward the LGBTQ crowd, theyll offer a subscription model: a $70 joining fee followed by a $30 membership to test for HIV monthly, with add-ons for other tests.
The technology behind these tests isnt new. What these companies are selling is the convenience and privacy of doing your pricking, peeing, and swabbing at home. Most of the kits include paper strip blood tests—like what a diabetic uses to test for glucose—though some offer pee cups and genital swab options. Then they send your samples to labs that run FDA-approved analyses (probably, more on that in a second) to detect the presence of viral or bacterial DNA. A few days later you receive your results through a secure portal, and then you can share your results as a PDF with a doctor or potential partner. Mately plans to go one step further, giving you a badge for your dating profile to prove youve been tested. Once you connect with someone you can share those results privately via a Snapchat-esque encrypted URL.
The end goal is noble: empowering people to own their sexual health and act responsibly. But these companies didnt just pop up because of an altruistic desire to eradicate STDs. They exist because of a regulatory ruling that lessened federal oversight on at-home tests for consumers.
In 2014, the FDA issued a proposed set of rules for laboratory-developed tests. On page five, footnote four, the agency stated that it would not be exercising enforcement discretion for direct-to-consumer tests, whether or not they met the definition of a lab-developed test. Basically, the FDA said, We see you doing something that we have the power to regulate, but were not going to enforce it because its not a high priority. That opened the door to different services, says myLAB Box co-founderLora Ivanova.
That lack of regulation means you should probably be skeptical of these companies services. Even if all the individual tests they offer have been approved by the FDA, only two tests—both for HIV—have been approved for home collection.1 Without direct oversight and with little transparency into the manufacturers and labs each company works with, theres room for error. Labs can mix up samples and botch tests. There are probably some good ones and some bad ones, but its really all over the place, says Charlotte Gaydos, an infectious disease researcher at Johns Hopkins Medical School. The need is here, but no one has yet risen to the occasion.
Back in 2010, Gaydos surveyed the 27 websites offering home-collection services for STDs, before GetTested, myLAB Box, or Mately were around. She found that some test results came back negative, even when the samples had been doused with chlamydia straight from her lab. The concern, she says, is that people will get back false negatives, either because of faulty collection on their own part or some glitch further down the line.
Mail-order testing kits can make a real difference. Gaydos has been studying STDs in Baltimore, Washington DC, and Alaska for decades, and when her subjects have access to at-home test kits, overall risk of STDs goes down. But the real impact, she says, will come from tests that get you results in a matter of minutes, not days. An eight-minute chlamydia test developed by one of her colleagues at the University of Maryland Baltimore County is currently in an 1,800 person clinical trial, and Gaydos says more than 20 companies are developing similar technologies.
Until they hit the market though, youre still probably better off swiping and sending before swiping right.
1UPDATE 7:45 pm Eastern 02/14/17: This story has been updated with the correct number of STD tests approved for at-home collection.