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Online Diagnosis of STIs? Ethicist Says We Are Nowhere Close

Online Diagnosis of STIs? Ethicist Says We Are Nowhere Close

This transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Hi. I’m Art Caplan. I’m at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine in New York City. 

There has been a large amount of news lately about dating online and dating apps. Probably the most common way younger people find potential partners is to go online and see who’s there that they might want to meet. 

Online dating is also notorious for being full of scammers. There are all kinds of people out there that you have to be careful of, who are trying to rip you off by saying, “Send me money, I’m in trouble,” or “Now that we have a relationship, will you support my particular entrepreneurial idea?” Certainly, dangers are there. 

Another danger we don’t talk much about is meeting people who have sexually transmitted diseases. That’s been a problem before websites and before dating apps. I think the opportunity of meeting more people — strangers, people you don’t really know — who may not tell you the truth about their health, and particularly their sexual health, is really out there. 

It’s always good medical advice to tell people to practice safe sex, and that often involves a man wearing a condom. It certainly is the case that we want to attend not just to the prevention of unwanted pregnancy but also to the transmission of diseases. I think it’s very important to tell women of reproductive age to get their HPV shot to try to reduce cancers in their reproductive systems, or sometimes in men — anal cancers, or even being a transmitter of disease. 

Even then, certainly one wants to recommend that, in an age where some people are going to meet many partners that they don’t know well or don’t have much background with, it’s wise to try to prevent diseases using the vaccines we’ve got, using the contraceptive methods that will prevent disease transmission, and reminding people to ask about sex life. 

I did come across a website that just startled me. It’s called HeHealth, and basically it says to men, if you are conscientious about your sex life, take a picture of your penis, send it to us, and we have doctors — I presume they’re US doctors but I don’t know — who will diagnose venereal diseases based on that picture. I presume women could also say, “Before we have sex, or now that we’re approaching that possibility, I want you to send a picture to this company on this website.” 

Now, a couple of reminders. I think we all know this, but just because you’re not manifesting symptoms on your reproductive organs doesn’t mean you don’t have a sexual disease. It’s not a reliable measure. Yes, maybe you could have somebody say, “Oh, that looks nasty. I’m not sure you ought to have sex right now, and maybe you should go get some treatment.” This is going to miss many cases and is not a reliable indicator that your partner is safe in terms of not transmitting diseases to you. 

It also isn’t clear what they do with these images. Do they keep them? Who can see them? Could they resell them? What sort of privacy protection have you got if you decide to use this? 

There’s another issue here, which is, if they misdiagnose someone and you do catch a sexual disease, who’s liable? Can you go after them for using doctors who weren’t competent or transmitting images that weren’t really adequate because you didn’t know how to take that picture properly when you sent that off to them? There are many unknowns. 

The bottom line is that we’re in a different world, I think, of romance. We’re in a world where some people are going to meet more partners. Some people are going to meet more strangers. One approach is to have us take pictures of ourselves, send them off to who knows where, and ask for a green light to go ahead and have sexual relations. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to being able to rely on that as a way to avoid the risks of unprotected sexual behavior. 

We do know what to do in dealing with patients who are sexually active. First, we have to ask them. Then we’ve got to recommend available vaccinations to prevent the transmission of some cancers, the HPV vaccine. Then they need that reminder about safe sexual practices not only to protect against unwanted pregnancy, but still, in this day and age, to protect against syphilis, which is on the rise, plus HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and other sexually transmissible diseases. 

I’m not going to rely on the penis picture to make the world safe for sex. I think we have to still use the old-fashioned techniques of education and prevention to do the best we can. 

I’m Art Caplan, at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine. Thank you for watching. 

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