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Scotts Valley’s dfusion Receives $1.3 Million to Develop and Evaluate a Mobile App Promoting Sexual Health for Young Black Men Who Have Sex with Men

By Regina Firpo-Triplett, MPH, MCHES
CEO, dfusion
Special to Santa Cruz Tech Beat

May 30, 2018 — Scotts Valley, CA

(Photo above: NIH reviewers determined that the proposed mobile app approach is a promising way to help this high-risk, hard-to-reach population. Contributed.)

Awarded $1M+ to Create Mobile App

dfusion has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to build an app to help young Black men who have sex with men (MSM) prevent acquiring HIV. Why? Because:

  • dfusion has expertise creating mobile apps and a successful track record of NIH-funded projects to advance health and wellbeing.
  • dfusion has an amazing partnership with the Scotts Valley-based nonprofit, ETR, who is collaborating on the project.
  • dfusion is not only developing the app, but also conducting a rigorous evaluation of its effectiveness with 300 young Black MSM throughout the country.
  • Black teenage MSM have a significant need for relevant, engaging, and impactful HIV/STI prevention interventions.

Significant Need

While great progress has been made combating HIV transmission rates nationally, the infection rate among young Black MSM still surpasses that of other groups. Many effective HIV prevention programs exist, but only 5% of them address same-gender sexual activity in teens. Surprisingly, not a single program was specifically designed for young Black MSM.

3T Addresses Critical Gap

Tune in, Turn on, Turn up (3T) is a multimedia interactive smartphone app designed for use by Black MSM ages 14-17. While 3T stresses HIV education and prevention (e.g., HIV testing procedures and locations, free condom providers, pre-exposure prophylaxis/PrEP), it does so in a sex-positive way that is designed to enhance the user’s sexual experiences and promote healthy relationships. In dfusion’s research, young Black MSM repeatedly expressed a desire to better understand what a healthy relationship looks like and how to express and negotiate relationship roles. dfusion also discovered that there are significant communication deficits between young Black MSM and their sexual partners. As a result, 3T will also emphasize the importance of effective communication.

3T’s mobile platform allows the user’s experience to be tailored based on his particular activity and inputs (e.g., gender identity, reported number of partners, frequency of sexual activity). By guiding the user to content specifically tailored to his needs, it helps him to clarify what he does or does not want to do sexually, effectively communicate his choices, and learn how to enhance his sexual experiences while reducing his HIV/STI risk. A prototype of the app was developed with Phase I funding and tested with 60 young Black MSM research participants. Participants requested communication features so they could connect and support each other as well as contact health educators for accurate answers. The fully-developed app will include these social networking and communication features.

The development team will use Adobe Animate/Flex/AIR – allowing the application to be packaged for several mobile platforms, including Android and iOS, with only one programming effort. dfusion chooses to develop native apps rather than a mobile site to allow for use of integrated smartphone features such as the GPS, access to SMS, and the camera.

Images from the concept 3T app prototype. Credit: dfusion 2017

Experienced Team

The study will be led by dfusion’s Tamara Kuhn, an experienced research scientist and digital intervention developer, and ETR’s Dr. Karin Coyle, a nationally acclaimed intervention developer and researcher on adolescent healthy relationships and sexual and reproductive health. They are supported by a group of advisors and a stellar project team to fully develop the app and conduct the rigorous evaluation.

About dfusion
Founded in 2014, dfusion incubates and develops science-based innovations for health and wellness, particularly for youth. dfusion staff are thrilled to have their first Phase II project, to contribute to a critical HIV prevention effort, and to be able to boost the local economy.

For additional information:

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