Interior Health is introducing routine HIV testing to its hospitals, including the Castlegar Health Centre.
Patients having blood work done for any reason will now be routinely asked if they’d like to be tested for the HIV virus.
Maja Karlsson, program implementation leader, says Interior Health decided to introduce routine testing when it recognized that not everyone living with HIV shows symptoms or undergoes testing.
“HIV is now a very treatable condition and we know that if people start on treatment early, then they can live long and healthy full lives, doing everything that they want to do,” said Karlsson. “But we know that about 20 per cent of the people who are currently living with HIV don’t know it, and so doing routine testing will help us to find those people.”
Castlegar is one of the first Interior Health locations to get on board with the new program.
“We’re introducing routine HIV testing into our emergency departments across the health authority,” explains Karlsson. “Castlegar just happens to be one of the first sites where we have gone live, because the providers in the emergency department, including the doctors and the nurses in the lab … they were keen to get started.”
Karlsson says the extra testing shouldn’t negatively impact the health centre’s resources.
“The only people who come into the emergency department and who will be offered an HIV test are those who would be having other blood work as well,” she explains. “There shouldn’t be any negative impact on the resources, because we’re sort of tying into services that they would already be accessing.”
It’s hoped that routine testing will help reduce the stigma surrounding the disease.
“Stigma definitely still is an issue with HIV because of how it started and because it was a deadly disease for so long. So the routine testing initiative, I think, helps to reduce the stigma because it normalizes HIV testing and makes it so that it’s not just special groups of people that would be getting tested, it’s just the regular public,” says Karlsson. “That’s important I think, because if everybody is offered an HIV test and everybody knows their HIV status, it becomes one of those normal conditions, more like diabetes or other chronic diseases that people don’t feel so afraid of being tested for.”
Interior Health has found that most people are very accepting when they’re offered the test.
“Most people when offered it in a very matter of fact way by their doctor or other health care provider accept that the test is a good thing to find out their results for,” says Karlsson.
Asked if any doctors or staff still need to work past the stigma associated with HIV, Karlsson says doctors and other health care providers are sometimes initially surprised at the idea of introducing routine testing, but with “the small amounts of testing we’ve been doing up till now, what we’ve found is that the health care providers have been really open to the concept of introducing routine testing.”
For those who test positive, the good news is that treatment has come a long way over the years.
“There are very, very good medications available for people who test positive and they are available free of charge for people in British Columbia,” says Karlsson.
Local residents can also access support and care through their diagnosis and while managing the disease.
“We now have some really great resources locally. So we have a doctor and a nurse practitioner, both who have extensive HIV experience,” says Karlsson. “And then we have a health outreach nurse whose job it is to do various different things, but that person’s role really is to support people living with HIV to be completely successful with their HIV in the context of the rest of their life.”
Twenty years ago, someone diagnosed with HIV would have had to travel to Vancouver for treatment, and the drugs they took would have negatively impacted them physically.
“I think the biggest difference between now and 20 years ago is the medications that people take are generally very well tolerated, and 20 years ago, even though there were some medications available, people had to take a large amount of them, and they had really negative physical impacts,” says Karlsson.
Now someone diagnosed with HIV only needs to take one to four pills a day, and while they will need to take that medication for the rest of their lives, Karlsson says they generally feel pretty well.
For more information about HIV testing and treatment visit myhealthissexy.com.