Conference highlights rural work

Since 2010, our Highland and Argyll & Bute team has provided HIV prevention and support services to some of the most remote areas of Scotland.

A major focus of our work is to provide outreach support to individuals at higher risk of HIV, including gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM).

Working in rural communities presents specific challenges to that work and, last week, we were invited to share our experiences at the Scottish conference of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV (BASHH).

One of our biggest challenges is spreading the word about our services. Unlike in more urban areas, many rural communities don’t have the same gay scene of bars, clubs and venues where specific support can be highlighted. At the same time, men in rural areas face additional barriers – from the lack of public transport to concerns about their anonymity being breached. The overall result is that some men are left reluctant to access help and can become isolated.

In the face of these challenges, social media and mobile apps have become an important way for us to engage with MSM across the region. These apps provide a discreet, anonymous environment where we find men are more willing to speak openly and ask questions. Through these conversations, we are able to build trust and encourage men to access our services.

Online outreach has also had a role in shaping the development of our services. For example, feedback from service users told us that many MSM were not able to access existing HIV testing options in their area. In order to make testing more convenient, we piloted, then launched a rapid testing service. Through the service, we offer discreet, confidential testing in community settings with results available in just 20 minutes. The service has resulted in a large increase in the number of people coming forward for testing.

The lessons we’ve learned through our work in rural communities are relevant to all healthcare professionals. It was, therefore, great to be given the opportunity to share our experiences at the BASHH conference.

If you would like to find out more about our Highland services, you can contact the team here.