How many episodes of Grey's Anatomy open with something catastrophically strange rolling into the emergency room? Too many to count. How many start with a woman walking into the ER and asking for a quick gonorrhea screening? It isn't just that STIs don't make for compelling TV, they also don't really warrant a trip to the ER. And, according to a recent study from the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, they are rarely treated correctly in that kind of setting anyway.
The study, using the records from 264 women between the ages of 18 and 65, found that nearly half of all urinary tract and sexually transmitted infections to come through emergency rooms were misdiagnosed. Dr. Michelle Hecker, MD, a coauthor of the study, explained that "less than half the women diagnosed with a urinary tract infection actually had one," while "sexually transmitted infections were missed in 37% of the women."
If that isn't alarming enough, Dr. Hecker went on to add that many of the women who actually had STIs "were wrongly diagnosed with urinary tract infections." Of the women with an STI who went untreated, 64% were instead prescribed antibiotics to treat a UTI. This is a standout finding from the study, especially given what we know about antibiotics (they're not something to be taken casually).
So, not only are ERs failing to catch about 50% of the UTIs and STIs that come through their doors, they are also mixing up the two conditions altogether. The study reported that 92% of the women's urinalysis findings reflected abnormal results, which directly contributed to the overdiagnosis of UTIs. True, UTIs and STIs can show similar findings from urinalysis, and both infections share symptoms, but an oversight of this magnitude indicates something needs to change about how ERs are screening these patients.
Luckily, the ER is definitely not the only place you can go to get tested. The Center for Disease Control provides a handy database of health centers, Planned Parenthoods, clinics, private health care providers, and more, based on your zip code or city and state. Meanwhile, new methods of testing are on their way, with Planned Parenthood launching an at-home testing app and the U.K. developing condoms that change color based on the wearer's sexual health.
Wherever you go, it's important to get screened for STIs and STDs regularly, even if you don't have any specific symptoms. And, if you can, don't wait until the emergency room is your only option.