from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reasons are complex and could jeopardize goals of ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030.
Patients and doctors alike face system challenges, including stigma, confidentiality concerns, racism, and inequitable access. Yet doctors, public health authorities, and even some patients agree that testing does work: In 2022, 81% of people diagnosed with HIV were linked to care within 30 days. Moreover, many patients are aware of where and how they wish to be tested. So, what would it take to achieve what ostensibly should be the lowest hanging fruit in the HIV care continuum?
“We didn’t look at the reasons for not testing,” Marc Pitasi, MPH, CDC epidemiologist and coauthor of the CDC study said in an interview. But “we found that the majority of people prefer the test in a clinical setting, so that’s a huge important piece of the puzzle,” he said.
The “never-tested” populations (4,334 of 6,072) in the study were predominantly aged 18-29 years (79.7%) and 50 years plus (78.1%). A total of 48% of never-tested adults also indicated that they had engaged in past-year risky behaviors (that is, injection drug use, treated for a sexually transmitted disease, exchanged sex/drugs for money, engaged in condomless anal sex, or had more than four sex partners). However, the difference between never-tested adults who live in EHE (Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S.)–designated jurisdictions (comprising 50 areas and 7 U.S. states responsible for more than 50% of new HIV infections) and those residing in non-EHE areas was only about 5 percentage points (69.1% vs. 74.5%, respectively), underscoring the need for broader engagement.
“There’s definitely a lack of testing across the board,” explained Lina Rosengren-Hovee, MD, MPH, MS, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “There are all sorts of biases on how we make decisions and how we stratify … and these heuristics that we have in our minds to identify who is at risk and who needs testing,” she said.
“If we just look at the need for HIV testing based on who is at risk, I think that we are always going to fall short.”
Seventeen years have passed since the CDC recommended that HIV testing and screening be offered at least once to all people aged 13-64 years in a routine clinical setting, with an opt-out option and without a separate written consent. People at higher risk (sexually active gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men) should be rescreened at least annually.
These recommendations were subsequently reinforced by numerous organizations, including the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in 2013 and again in 2019, and the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2021.
But Dr. Rosengren-Hovee said that some clinicians remain unaware of the guidelines; for others, they’re usually not top-of-mind because of conflicting priorities.
This is especially true of pediatricians, who, despite data demonstrating that adolescents account for roughly 21% of new HIV diagnoses, rarely recognize or take advantage of HIV-testing opportunities during routine clinical visits.
“Pediatricians want to do the right thing for their patients but at the same time, they want to do the right thing on so many different fronts,” said Sarah Wood, MD, of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and attending physician of adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Dr. Wood is coauthor of a study published in Implementation Science Communicationsexamining pediatrician perspectives on implementing HIV testing and prevention. Participants identified confidentiality and time constraints as the most important challenges across every step of their workflow, which in turn, influenced perceptions about patients’ perceived risks for acquiring HIV – perceptions that Dr. Wood believes can be overcome.
“We need to really push pediatricians (through guideline-making societies like AAP and USPSTF) that screening should be universal and not linked to sexual activity or pinned to behavior, so the offer of testing is a universal opt-out,” she said. Additionally, “we need to make it easier for pediatricians to order the test,” for example, “through an office rapid test … and a redesigned workflow that moves the conversation away from physicians and nurse practitioners to medical assistants.”
Dr. Wood also pointed out that any effort would require pediatricians and other types of providers to overcome discomfort around sexual health conversations, noting that, while pediatricians are ideally positioned to work with parents to do education around sexual health, training and impetus are needed.