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Online registry that connects Nova Scotians to sexual health care scrambling after losing funding

Sexual Health Nova Scotia's SUGAR Health is an online portal that helps people navigate and access health services like sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing, cervical screening, gender-affirming care and abortion care. (Craig Chivers/CBC - image credit)
Sexual Health Nova Scotia's SUGAR Health is an online portal that helps people navigate and access health services like sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing, cervical screening, gender-affirming care and abortion care. (Craig Chivers/CBC - image credit)

An online registry and support line that helps Nova Scotians access sexual, gender and reproductive health care is facing an uncertain future after its funding from Health Canada ran out last month.

Sexual Health Nova Scotia launched its SUGAR Health website in Nov. 2023, after receiving just over $500,000 from Health Canada's Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) Fund in the spring.

The registry was the first of its kind in Nova Scotia, providing an online portal to help people navigate and access health services like sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing, cervical screening, gender-affirming care and abortion care.

But it also provides what the organization calls a warmline, a chat service that gives people the option to call or text a navigator who will guide them through available services.

Leigh Heide, the project manager for SUGAR Health, said they had applied for a renewal of funding through Health Canada in December, with the understanding that the federal agency's goal was to extend funding for existing projects.

Leigh Heide is the project manager for Sexual Health Nova Scotia's SUGAR Health.
Leigh Heide is the project manager for Sexual Health Nova Scotia's SUGAR Health.

Leigh Heide is the project manager for Sexual Health Nova Scotia's SUGAR Health. (Submitted by Leigh Heide)

The application was sent back, they said, and they were asked to reduce the budget by 25 per cent and then resubmit — which they did.

But the application was denied mid-February, less than four months after the site launched. The funding expired on March 31.

"It was very shocking. We had felt confident in our conversations with them that the goal was the extension and they were supporting us in that process," Heide told Information MorningHalifax.

"We knew there was a reduced amount of funding in the fund overall, but we were very confident about our chances, especially being only one of two Atlantic Canadian projects."

CBC News contacted Health Canada for information about the funding, but did not hear back in time for publication.

Heide said SUGAR Health has just begun gaining momentum, given the short timeframe they've had.

"People are hearing about the project, getting more and more engagement through the warmline, and then is it going to just halt?" they said.

"And then on a personal level, we've got three staff that are going, 'OK, so I just don't have a job in six weeks?'"

Heide said during the first few months of operation, Nova Scotia's health-care crisis has become evident to the team, as many people don't have a family physician or nurse practitioner.

SUGAR Health launched their online registry and warmline in November 2023.
SUGAR Health launched their online registry and warmline in November 2023.

SUGAR Health launched their online services registry and warmline in November 2023. (SUGAR Health)

This makes accessing sexual health and reproductive services difficult, especially cervical screenings and STI testing.

"We knew about those issues. We've known, but it's become even more prominent through this project that there's a real crisis in this field."

Heide said SUGAR Health helps take away from that stress, by considering individual barriers that some people face, while providing them with the knowledge to navigate the health system effectively.

"Thinking about it in a comprehensive, holistic way is really an important piece," they said.

"And without our warmline, [SUGAR Health] is a website that people can look at on their own — which again, it's a great resource — but without that accompanying navigation support, it's not really the same thing."

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