High-Risk Patients Unaware of New HIV Testing Options

A new study finds new HIV testing options aren’t reaching the entirety of the high-HIV-risk population, in part due to a lack of knowledge and access.

Victoria Frye, DrPH

New HIV testing options provide significant choice to patients, but they won’t meet their potential without a concerted effort to educate the public and make the tests widely available, according to a new study.

Researchers at several New York institutions conducted in-depth interviews with 30 young, black men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women to gauge their knowledge of and preferences for various HIV testing options. They found that concerns about accuracy, privacy and stigma were major factors in the subjects’ perceptions of testing. However, they also found a lack of knowledge around newer methods, such as couples HIV testing and counseling (CHTC).

Victoria Frye, DrPH, an associate professor of medicine at the City University of New York, said while the array of new testing options are great, they’re “only as meaningful as people knowing about and really having access to the options.”

She said one problem faced by people who want to get tested is that providers typically only offer some of the available testing options, limiting the likelihood that a given patient is able to choose from the entire range of choices.

“I also don’t know that the community-based orgs and testing organizations have been given the resources to make every single option available to folks who might want different options,” Frye, the study’s first author, told MD Magazine.

Frye said the authors chose to look at black MSM and transgender women because those are 2 high-risk groups that would benefit from regular HIV testing, according to the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.

Among the 27 study subjects who answered a question about their most recent HIV test, older methods were the norm. About one-third (36%) of respondents said they gave a whole blood sample. Another third (33%) had an oral swab test. Six of the participants reported doing a finger prick test. Nearly half (46%) said their most recent test had been in a community health clinic.

Frye said one way to improve education about testing options is by working in the public schools. She said New York City’s public schools have a solid HIV-prevention curriculum, but she said that curriculum isn’t translating to an in-depth knowledge of testing options.

“I think what this research suggested — and again this was qualitative and based on a small number — was that there are young folks who are usually coming out of that system who are not necessarily as well educated as we would hope they would be,” she said.

In addition to couples testing, the study also found low knowledge of at-home and self-testing options. Those tests provide patients the privacy of doing the test at home, and then taking a confirmatory test in a clinic setting if needed.

In their concluding remarks, Frye and her co-authors suggest increased public awareness campaigns, including the use of social media, to help broaden public awareness of testing options. They also suggest that further research might be beneficial to specifically look into the question of whether programs designed to help people develop personalized testing plans, looking at all available tests, might help boost testing rates.

The study is titled “Preferences for HIV test characteristics among young, Black Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM) and transgender women: Implications for consistent HIV testing.” It was published Feb. 20 in PLOS One.

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