Written by Brennan Keiser | HLM Summer 2018 Intern
Every year on June 27th, we recognize National HIV Testing Day to encourage all United States citizens to get tested. While it’s true that HIV is more common among certain groups, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone know their status and get tested at least once as part of a routine health check-up. In 2015, researchers found that 1 out of every 7 people living with HIV had not been diagnosed, which, of course, makes it harder to prevent the spread of the virus.
What’s health literacy got to do with it?
HIV is a complex health condition that most people don't know much about. Even though so much has changed since the earliest days of the epidemic, there’s still a lot of stigma attached to it. Healthcare professionals need to think carefully about how we frame HIV testing and treatment as we talk to our patients and their families.
Let people know that less than 1 percent of people in the U.S. live with HIV, so most who get tested will get a negative result – meaning they do not have the virus. That's the great news: most people learn their status is negative and don't have to consider any other steps until it's time to get tested again! With advances in treatment, more good news is that people who are diagnosed with HIV can manage the condition and live a full life.
What if we find out a patient is positive?
No matter how we say it, a diagnosis of any chronic condition is a scary thing to learn. We also know that stress can block us from taking in new information, especially when it is complex. Patients may have trouble understanding some important parts of their care,
Key HIV terms like CD4 count and viral load
When and how often to see their doctor
Knowing what medicines to take and how to take them.
That’s why it is important that we, as health professionals, take extra care in communicating with patients as they enter into the system of HIV care.
Remember to use words people understand the first time they hear them:
CD4 count: A reading of how well your immune system is working. The higher your CD4 count, the better.
Viral Load: The amount of HIV in your blood. The number goes down with treatment
The U=U campaign for testing and treatment
The CDC officially recognized last year that if you have a viral load so low it does not show on a blood test, there is no risk of spreading HIV. That is, if a person living with HIV has an undetectable status, the virus is untransmittable. That means undetectable = untransmittable, or U=U for short. This announcement is changing the conversation about HIV stigma and prevention, and an undetectable status can be a goal that all people living with HIV can work to achieve with our help.
Communicating with patients in a health-literate way is an essential piece to helping people living with HIV get access to care, maintain their treatment and reach U=U. It benefits those living with HIV and everyone else in our diverse communities as we strive to end the HIV epidemic.
Encourage everyone to get tested and know their status as the first step! To help people find a testing location in your area, just enter your zip code into this CDC search tool.