How we innovated to reach gay and bisexual men having sex with men and let them book appointments to get tested, when it suits them

Virgin Care used its innovative virtual sexual health hub with convenient 24/7 online booking and weekday telephone support in partnership with gay dating app Grindr to engage hard-to-reach gay and bisexual men in looking after their sexual health.



Virgin Care launched its sexual health hub in 2016, as a new model of delivering services which were under increasing cost pressure from commissioners, facing increasing demand and which patient feedback told us needed to be overhauled to become more convenient, accessible and understandable for people with busy lives. Our feedback and research told us that although everyone found sexual health services hard to access, those considered ‘hard to reach’ were most affected.

The Hub runs virtually across all of Virgin Care’s Sexual Health Services in the UK and is accessible by phone and online.

The Sexual Health Hub website means anyone can access clear, accessible, authoritative and jargon-free information about sexual health, contraception and testing whenever they need to and from any internet-connected device.

At the same time, the Hub means that anyone living in the areas where we provide sexual health services can also log in and book an appointment for when it suits them, whenever they want to. Whether it’s 3am after an unexpected encounter where they might have put themselves at risk or on the commute home, the Hub can help.

And if that’s not got the answer, then our Sexual Health Hub phone system means advice, appointment booking and information is only ever a phone call away, 24 hours a day during the week.

During the day, the Hub means calls are answered more quickly because clever technology connects all of our services together. If there’s no one available to answer a call in Teesside, then that’s not a problem – one of our colleagues in Oldham can help with advice, support and appointments.

Developing the Sexual Health Hub is the foundation of all that Virgin Care is doing to make sure everyone feels the difference when they use a Virgin Care sexual health service – not just meaning a more efficient service for commissioners, saving the taxpayer money, but also for the general public who want a service that works around them.

How we used the sexual health hub to target gay and bisexual men for testing


Our research in setting up the Sexual Health Hub told us that less than 40% of the population were at high risk of poor sexual health – and the group at the highest risk were those engaging in risky behaviour because they weren’t aware, or didn’t care about, the risks it poses.

We found that more than half of the people at high risk cared that they were doing all they could to stay well, but didn’t have the knowledge or access to services they needed.

High risk people are 2.4 times more likely to have reported an STI, 2.3 times more likely to have had an abortion and 1.9 times more likely to currently have chlamydia. Men having same sex experiences can sometimes constitute a ‘hidden population’ among commissioners that are hard to reach to ensure they access sexual health services.

We identified that there was a big opportunity to change risky behaviour (Designer note: bold in design please) among these people by offering a more accessible service, better and clearer information, and making it easier for people with busy lives to turn their care about good sexual health into action.

Virgin Care research

High risk people are 2.4 times more likely to have reported a sexually transmitted infection

Our Sexual Health Hub delivered that – but we needed a way to get this easily accessed information into the hands of hard to reach groups.
What our research had found was that it was unlikely this ‘high care, low knowledge’ group would seek out information – and that they were more likely to hear about sexual health issues from their friends.

We already knew that 70% of people accessed our service’s website from mobile devices, and that our 24/7 online booking service was naturally suited to on-the-move bookings. But how else could we get to hard to reach bisexual and gay men, who were engaging in risky behaviour?

Partnering with gay dating app Grindr

Gay dating app, or ‘nearby friend finder’ Grindr, claims they are able to provide access to 100% of sexually active gay and bisexual men in the UK through push advertising in their app. Equivalent apps are available for other hard to reach communities, including dating and friend finder apps dedicated to gay and bisexual women, transsexual men and women and other groups.

While other NHS sexual health services have advertised on the platform, this has mainly been an attempt to raise awareness both of the need for testing, and the availability of services locally. With most users accessing dating apps outside of normal office hours, success at driving these high-risk and hard to reach groups to access services has not been forthcoming.

With our sexual health hub, though, we were able to deliver an end-to-end push not just to raise awareness but to translate raised awareness into a fully-confirmed, convenient booking for testing – whether our message popped up during office hours, or not.

Virgin Care findings

250 individual people were reached and engaged with following two days of advertising, who later isited our hub, accessed information and booked appointments for testing

This innovative approach, which we trialled in the Teesside and Greater Manchester areas led to an increase in booking of appointments for testing, directed hard to reach groups towards our sexual health hub website and a sprinkle of the Virgin magic got our message stuck in people’s heads.

Over just two days of advertising we reached and engaged almost 250 individual people who visited our hub, accessed information and booked appointments for testing as a result.

Our partnership with Grindr reinforced our research findings that messaging over the weekend, when most sexual health services are closed, was most effective. 30% more people clicked on our ad when it ran on a Saturday compared to a Monday.

We recorded the impact in our Teesside service in comparison to last year, with the campaign having a big impact in August, where we saw more than 20% more men in 2016 as a result of guiding men who have sex with men to our sexual health hub, who then subsequently booked an appointment.

Virgin Care findings

Men who have sex with men attendances increased from 84 to 102 in August 2016 compared to August 2015, a rise of more than 20%.

Our testing also showed us:

  • There was little difference in engagement between a ‘cheeky’ message and a more formal one, but post-campaign Twitter activity suggests our cheeky tone helped stick in people’s minds
  • Repeating the same message just a few days later reduced engagement, suggesting a single message allows us to reach a high proportion of the group in a specific area and keeping costs down

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