Innovating in Sexual Health: An Interview with Jessica Ladd

Jessica Ladd is an up-and-coming public health protege with an affinity for technology. She founded Sexual Health Innovations, an organization dedicated to filling in the gaps in reproductive health, including So They Can Know, a free web service that aims to increase STD partner notification. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

How and why did you start Sexual Health Innovations?
Jessica Ladd: I started Sexual Health Innovations because I wanted a home for So They Can Know—I needed an organization through which I could raise funds to support the project. Since then, Sexual Health Innovations has become much more than one project, and the reason I want to continue it is because I see such poor-quality tools and resources online for sexual health, and I realize how easy and cheap it is to create high-quality ones. As for how, I did it with a ton of help from fantastic friends, family, and colleagues who donated their time and money to get this initiative off the ground.

So how does So They Can Know work?
Right now, people who are diagnosed with STDs notify an average of 23% of their sex partners, leaving most partners unaware of their infection. These unnotified partners tend to not get tested, not get treated, and keep spreading the STD on to others. So They Can Know (STCK) helps people who have been diagnosed with STDs to notify their sex partners by providing tips and videos on how to have that conversation, and allowing people who aren’t willing to have that difficult conversation to anonymously email their partners. These emails contain basic information about the STD the partner is being notified for, and link them back to STCK where they can search for an STD testing site near them.

What’s been your biggest surprise putting STCK together?
How giving so many talented people have been with their time. We were able to launch the website at a cost of less than $3,000 because almost all coding and design was done by volunteers.

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Raising start-up capital for a non-profit isn’t easy. You can’t give equity, you can’t promise future riches to your employees, you can’t do all the things you would do to jump-start a for-profit. And most foundations and government agencies want to see data from a pilot before they fund you. That’s why we’ve launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to promote the website to the people who need it, which will allow us to get that pilot data we need for future financial support. Please support our campaign – we only have until February 11!

What about privacy? How do you know messages will get to the right person?
People are pretty good about not giving out the passwords to their email accounts, and there’s nothing in the subject line that would “out” the recipient of a notification email to a casual inbox observer.

How has adoption been with health clinics? Who are you working with? Is it hard to get them to try something new?
It’s been great! We’re working with numerous state and city health departments, several college campus health centers, and Planned Parenthood. We’re going after clinics that give a lot of STD diagnoses, and it’s not hard to make them see the need—they know how hard it is for their patients to figure out who they need to tell and how to tell them.

What data are you using to measure your success? Has STCK improved the partner notification rate?
It’s honestly too early to tell yet. We just started shipping clinics free promotional material about the website to give to STD-diagnosed patients. We use the number of cards distributed with a clinic code and the number of email senders using that clinic code to estimate the percentage of patients told about the website who use it.

Any political pushback?
Not yet.

What other projects are you planning with Sexual Health Innovations?
We have a number of projects in the works. Some are focused on increasing testing for STDs, some on preventing sexual assault and helping those who’ve experienced it, and some on developing comprehensive and free sex education videos. People can propose sexual health challenges or solutions on our website, and we make sure our donors and Advisory Board have a seat at the table when deciding what projects to prioritize.

Any lessons learned in bridging the divide between tech and public health?
(1) That it is really hard to get eHealth interventions and formative research past institutional review boards (IRBs). (2) That there are surprisingly few people working in public health and tech. Most health & tech work is focused on the medical side of healthcare and not on prevention or public health systems. (3) That the health/tech revolution is leaving behind some of the communities that need it the most, and not just because of access to technology, but because your inner-city STD clinic can’t pay an arm and a leg for the IT department or EMRs that hospitals can.

What advice do you have for others in grad school who want to start a business, especially one in the health space?
Wait until you graduate. If you’re crazy enough to ignore that advice, then set yourself up for success by developing relationships with professors who can become lifelong mentors, taking advantage of a student community looking to build their resumes (read: potential highly skilled volunteers/co-founders/interns), and joining business plan and pitch competitions that are student-only and might give you the connections and funding you need to launch your project. And apply for things like fellowships and incubators for your project while you’re still in school so that you can hit the ground running when you graduate.