Access to healthcare for street sex workers in the UK: perspectives and best practice guidance from a national cross-sectional survey of frontline workers

Lucy C Potter*, Jeremy Horwood, Gene S Feder

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)
347 Downloads (Pure)


Street sex workers (SSWs) are a highly marginalised and stigmatised group who carry an extremely high burden of unmet health need. They experience multiple and interdependent health and social problems and extreme health inequality. Despite high levels of chronic physical and mental ill-health, there is little evidence of effective healthcare provision for this group. They are often considered ‘hard to reach’, but many individuals and organisations have extensive experience of working with this group.

We conducted a cross-sectional survey of professionals who work with SSWs in the UK on their perspectives on their access to primary care, mental health, sexual health and drug and alcohol services, how well these services met the needs of SSWs and suggestions of best practice.

50 professionals mostly from England, responded. Mainstream general practice and mental health services were found to be largely inaccessible to SSWs. Sexual health, drug and alcohol services and homeless health services better met their needs; this was mostly attributed to flexible services and collaborations with organisations who work closely with SSWs. The main challenges in providing healthcare to SSWs were services being inflexible, under-resourced services and services not being trauma-informed. Best practice in providing healthcare to SSWs includes- seamless partnership working between agencies with case worker support; peer-involvement in service development and engagement, a range of health provision including outreach, presence in community spaces and fast-track access into mainstream services; trauma-informed, gender-sensitive health services in a welcoming environment with flexible, responsive appointment and drop-in systems and consistent clinicians with specialist knowledge of substance misuse, mental health, domestic violence and homelessness.

Access to healthcare for SSWs in the UK is highly variable but largely inadequate with regards to primary care and mental health provision. The examples of positive healthcare provision and partnership working presented here demonstrate the feasibility of accessible healthcare that meets the needs of SSWs. These need to be systematically implemented and evaluated to understand their impact and implications. As we build back from COVID-19 there is an urgent need to make accessible healthcare provision for marginalised groups the norm, not the exception
Original languageEnglish
Article number178
Number of pages11
JournalBMC Health Services Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 11 Feb 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Author L.P. was funded by the National Institute for Health Research In-Practice Fellowship IPF-2018–12-015. There was no additional funding for this study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s).


  • Access to health care
  • Sex work
  • Inequalities
  • Inclusion health
  • Best practice


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