Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about the ASSIST study. If you cannot find the answer to your question then please contact us for more information.

What is the ASSIST study about?

ASSIST is a 39-month study which aims to:

  • examine whether online postal self-sampling has changed access to sexual healthcare and services
  • examine the impact of online postal self-sampling on sexual health
  • determine who is accessing online services and clinic-based services, how and why
  • explore service user and provider experiences of online postal self-sampling services
  • analyse the costs of online postal self-sampling services compared to clinic-based services

You can find a full description of how and why we are doing the research in our article: Assessing the impact of online postal self-sampling for sexually transmitted infections on health inequalities, access to care and clinical outcomes in the UK: protocol for ASSIST, a realist evaluation by Gibbs et al (2022)

Why is it important to do this research?

Sexual health is important for building a healthy society, and STI treatment is costly to the NHS. Young people, those living in more deprived areas, gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, gender diverse people, and those from ethnic minorities are more affected by poor sexual health. Many STIs are rising, yet funding for services has reduced. As a result, services have found new ways to deliver care, including ordering testing kits online which can be used at home. The hope is that these online services are cost effective and increase access to testing, particularly among groups most at risk. If so, this would have the added benefit of reducing existing health inequalities.

What has the research shown so far?

Access to, usage and clinic outcomes of, online postal sexually transmitted infection services: a scoping review by Sumray et al (2022)

Testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is often done at home instead of in clinics. People can order kits online that are posted to them, with results provided online or by text message. This work looked at ten of these online services in England. We found that most people using the kits had no symptoms when they ordered them. They also usually described themselves as White, women, over 20 years old, and from more wealthy areas. Online services tended to increase the number of people testing for STIs. People said the services were acceptable, easy, reliable, and discreet. But, groups that have more STIs and have greater need for these services are not using them as much. It's important to understand why services are not used by these groups so we can improve them for the people who need them the most.

The full published paper is available here.

Measuring and evaluating sexual health in the era of digital health: challenges and opportunities by Gibbs et al (2022)

In this paper, we discuss the uses and potential of digital technology in sexual healthcare – identifying where it has worked well and where there is room for improvement. We give recommendations for people and organisations who provide sexual health services. We examine how digital technology could help to (i) reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV; (ii) increase diagnosis and treatment of STIs; and (iii) improve care and support for people with STIs. We describe the steps needed to make the most of digital technology and provide the best possible sexual healthcare for everyone across the world.

The full published paper is available here.

When did the ASSIST study start and when will it end?

ASSIST is a 39-month study, which started on 1st January 2021. The study will end in March 2024.

Which organisations are involved in ASSIST?

ASSIST is led by University College London (UCL) in collaboration with:

  • Chelsea & Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
  • NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde
  • UK Health Security Agency
  • University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Oxford

The following research sites are participating:

  • Barts Health NHS Trust
  • Central & North West London NHS Foundation Trust
  • Chelsea & Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
  • Sexual Health London (SHL.UK)
  • Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust

How is ASSIST funded?

ASSIST is funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) under its Health Services and Delivery Research Programme (Reference Number: 11/2004/50). NIHR is a national funding body supported by the Department of Health. The NIHR aims to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research.

How will the ASSIST team achieve its aims?

We will analyse data from sexual health clinics, online postal self-sampling services and national surveys of sexual behaviour. We will interview service users and service providers, and observe how STI and HIV testing services operate in practice.

How are patients and the public involved in ASSIST?

As part of our research, we will interview over a hundred people who have tested for STIs and HIV using online self-sampling and/or at sexual health clinics. Lay representatives are included on our Study Steering Committee and Expert Advisory Group, and patients and public contribute to the study via our Community Advisory Panel.

How can I get involved in ASSIST?

We are inviting people who have used online and/or clinic-based STI and HIV testing services to take part in an interview which takes about 60-90 minutes. If you’re aged 16 years or older and have used sexual health services in Birmingham, Sheffield or London in the past year, we would like to hear your thoughts and experiences. Taking part involves a confidential interview (by telephone, video or face-to-face) with a qualified healthcare researcher. Here is a copy of the participant information sheet and the consent form.

If you have any questions or would like to take part in this study, please contact:

Dr Alison Howarth / Dr Tommer Spence


What is online postal self-sampling?

Online postal self-sampling services provide testing for STIs (e.g. chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis) and HIV. You order the testing kit online, or sometimes you can collect a kit from your local clinic, take your own samples at home and post them back to a laboratory. You can receive results by text, logging into an online system or, in some cases if you test positive, a healthcare professional will telephone you. Here is an example of how online postal self-sampling works:

Self-sampling illustration

How reliable is self-sampling?

There is strong evidence that self-sampling, where a person takes their own samples to test for STIs, is as accurate as healthcare professional collected samples.

Where can I get an HIV or STI test?

Find your nearest sexual health services.

Where can I get condoms?

You can get a wide range of condoms at incredibly low prices at freedoms.