If you’ve ever been tested for STDs, you’re well aware of the hassle and anxiety the process entails. You wait nervously for hours to find out your results or you’re sent home after being told that “no news is good news” and that you’ll only receive a phone call if you test positive. That’s where the new iPhone app “Healthvana” comes in; it allows medical labs to send test results directly to your phone so that you can get them quicker, prove your health status to partners, and even send medical records to a new doctor. For curable infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, the app displays a positive or negative icon, while a positive HIV result is delivered through a phone call from your doctor. The idea is that this streamlined way to receive and share test results would encourage people to take control of their sexual health—although this noble aim is likely to have more questionable outcomes.
Ideally, Healthvana would get people talking—and thinking— about STDs. Haley Brown ‘17 points out that “students only think of condoms as a way to prevent pregnancy, and if someone’s on birth control, they’re often not used. We understand condoms prevent STDs, but at the same time, it’s just not a part of our dialogue.” While the app does provide a modicum of education about each infection and occasional testing reminders, its main service is to bring STDs into the larger conversation. Middle school health classes can describe symptoms and transmission, but that doesn’t ensure that college students will see STDs as a real and relevant danger. Furthermore, associating STDs with something as banal as an app could relieve some of the awkwardness before a sexual encounter; instead of having to broach an uncomfortably serious topic with a partner, people might feel they’re talking about just another window on their iPhone.
Healthvana could also, however, do just the opposite: perpetuate the lack of actual, face-to-face conversation that created a market for the app in the first place. Many people could download it in order to avoid having to actually ask a partner about his/her/their status; it would just be another way to hide behind a screen. While this argument—whining about the way our generation isn’t really present— may be trite, it is necessary to consider when decoding the often cryptic dialogue surrounding consensual sex, STD testing, and sexual histories. It is this same failure to communicate that often fogs the issue of true consent; lack of conversation before sex leads to the assumption that the absence of a “no” means “yes,” and the question “Do you want this?” is never really asked. If Healthvana can facilitate discussion between sexual partners, it can improve communication not only about STDs but also about other issues regarding sex. So, it could go either way—it could be a jumping off point for people to discuss sexual concerns, or it could shroud the conversation with profiles and online messages, serving as another excuse not to have an open dialogue.
The company behind Healthvana has advertised the app as a way for people free of STDs to easily show their negative status. But what about people who do test positive? “It seems like Healthvana would be really incriminating for people who are positive,” asserts Catherine Burns ‘17. Indeed, the app could end up further stigmatizing people with STDs. Obviously people who test positive should share their status with sexual partners, but displaying the label “positive” on a screen isn’t the easiest way to do this. And that’s not even considering what happens at the actual moment that people are notified; news that is already devastating, delivered through something totally inhuman, could leave them feeling even more isolated and shamed.
The app presents technical and design problems as well. While it does display the amount of time that’s passed since testing (a message such as “tested 1 year and 2 months ago” is featured on each profile), a negative result can still be misleading. Even when you know that someone could have picked up an STD in the meantime, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when the “negative” symbol is staring you in the face. The app’s “important reminder” that “a negative result doesn’t guarantee @user is STD free” doesn’t quite drive the point home. For an app aimed at slowing the spread of STDs and keeping people safe and healthy, this is a glaringly dangerous flaw. Another question raised is that of privacy; while the company Healthvana assures its users that “our elegant portal” is secure, there’s always the potential that its database will be hacked and sensitive information released. Your STD status is the last thing you’d want to be thrown carelessly into cyberspace. And all of these issues only matter if you have a smartphone — a privilege that fully 42% of all American adults do not have.
These problems aside, the question remains: will people really use Healthvana? “At a school as small as Vassar, where you know most people at least by association, it could be really awkward to say ‘Ok, show me your phone’ before a sexual encounter,” points out Olivia Zerphy ‘17. Anna Blum ‘17 feels uncertain about the app as well. “I feel weird about everything—including our health—being digitized,” she says, “But it might encourage people to get tested more. I know a lot of people who assume they are STD free.” One thing is certain, though: Healthvana calls attention to the dialogues that are and are not going on at Vassar and in the world at large. The app may be well intentioned, but it merely serves as a Band-Aid for the underlying problem: the absence of productive and transparent conversations about consensual sex. If we need an app for that, then the problem is bigger than any app can solve.