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Sexual, reproductive health services go online to add convenience, remove stigma for patients

SINGAPORE — For Ms Sanchez Patricia Keith Lee, a visit to the doctor to refill her monthly birth control prescription was a deeply uncomfortable experience from the moment she walked through the clinic’s doors.

Ms Shruti Dwivedi, founder of Dear Doc.

Ms Shruti Dwivedi, founder of Dear Doc.

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  • Patients said they experienced stigma and judgment when they visit their GP
  • Founders of the companies want to address the barriers women face getting such services
  • Some customers turned to these platforms when sexual health services were considered non-essential during the circuit breaker
  • The companies plan on including more services, like STI screening kits, in the future

 

SINGAPORE — For Ms Sanchez Patricia Keith Lee, a visit to the doctor to refill her monthly birth control prescription was a deeply uncomfortable experience from the moment she walked through the clinic’s doors.

Not only did the 21-year-old student face weird looks from the elderly aunties in the waiting room when she was called to collect her medication, she also felt uneasy discussing her sexual health with the male doctor at the clinic, who was the only one available when she was free.

Frustrated with the process, Ms Lee decided a year after her first consultation to look for other ways to get her birth control prescription refilled.

That was when she found Dear Doc — a telehealth company which offers discreet and affordable sexual and reproductive services online.

Dear Doc is among the few sexual and reproductive telehealth providers that have been launched this year to make sexual and reproductive services accessible to women who are in need of them, but face challenges doing so in person due to the stigma and judgment surrounding the topic.

By moving such services online, patients can consult a doctor and have their prescriptions refilled from the comfort and privacy of their own homes.

Medication is also packed in nondescript packaging so those concerned about nosy family members or housemates need not worry that they will learn of the bag’s contents.

Aside from the added privacy and convenience, Ms Lee also appreciates that she has the option to consult a female doctor.

“I feel more confident speaking to a female doctor and it’s more efficient to get birth control through their services,” she said.

REMOVING BARRIERS

Founder Shruti Dwivedi, 39, said she started Dear Doc in May with the aim of removing all the barriers that typically discourage women from receiving sexual and reproductive healthcare.

With 16 years of experience in this sector of the healthcare industry, Ms Dwivedi said she noticed that many women were still unaware of, or unwilling to consider, the various birth control options out there even when they could be beneficial to them.

Part of it lies in cultural barriers, she said, especially in Asia-Pacific countries where sex is still a taboo topic, and there is a lot of shame and stigma associated with getting birth control.

Then there are also the issues that women have faced when getting birth control from their regular GPs.

For instance, Ms Dwivedi said women have given feedback that they often do not get enough counselling on how to get started or how they should manage their medical care after their first visit.

That is why Dear Doc has put in place a pre-consultation form, which asks patients for details of their sexual and medical history, as well as their preferred method of birth control, so that their doctors can focus on addressing any concerns or questions that their patients may have during scheduled appointments.

Mr Rio Hoe (left) and Ms Guadalupe Lazaro, co-founders of Ease Healthcare. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Echoing these views are Mr Rio Hoe, 27, and Ms Guadalupe Lazaro, 23, the founders of Ease Healthcare, another health startup launched earlier this year which provides sexual and reproductive health services to patients online.

Mr Hoe and Ms Lazaro said the idea for Ease Healthcare came to them in September last year, and they were motivated by their own uncomfortable experiences with getting such services in Singapore — from receiving unwanted advice at the clinic, to having to queue for long hours to get prescriptions refilled.

“We realised that with technology, we could break down these barriers and revolutionise the ways in which these healthcare services are provided,” they said.

IMPACT OF COVID-19

Though the pandemic and global lockdowns have pushed many health providers to go digital, Dear Doc’s Ms Dwivedi and Ease’s Mr Hoe and Ms Lazaro said that it was purely coincidental that they chose to launch their telehealth platforms this year.

After all, the difficulties accessing sensitive health services had existed even before the coronavirus emerged, said Mr Hoe and Ms Lazaro.

Still, all three of them agreed that the pandemic exacerbated the situation as sexual and reproductive services were considered non-essential during the circuit breaker period.

Because of this, patients in need of such services were turned away, said Mr Hoe and Ms Lazaro.

Some customers, they said, were also hesitant to visit the clinics to get their prescriptions refilled in the early parts of the pandemic as they did not want to risk getting exposed to the coronavirus.

So the accessibility of these services through digital platforms like Ease Healthcare and Dear Doc was a lifesaver during this period, customers told them.

EMPOWERING PATIENTS

Ease Healthcare said it has received good feedback from its customers since the platform launched in May. Currently, over 5,800 people have joined its service.

As their platform continues to grow, Mr Hoe and Ms Lazaro said there are plans to expand the range of products and services it provides, such as an at-home sexually transmitted infections (STI) test kit.

Ms Dwivedi said Dear Doc also hopes to expand the services it provides. But the immediate goal is to try to reach a wider audience of women to raise awareness on the birth control options that they can consider.

Mr Hoe and Ms Lazaro said they are also focused on providing educational content on their platform as they realised many people here are still too embarrassed to seek help, or even unaware of who they can reach out to for a start.

“We built Ease as not just a telehealth platform but a judgement-free space for people to share their experiences, ask questions, and get the help they need.”

“We are on a mission to empower individuals… and our telehealth services form just a part of the wider movement we are building,” they said.

Related topics

telehealth sexual health birth control

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