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AIDS 2016: Reducing Clinic Visits Supports Retention in HIV Care, African Studies Show

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Interventions which reduce the need for people with HIV to attend clinics are proving highly successful in retaining people in care and supporting adherence to HIV medication in southern Africa, according to reports presented at the 21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016) last month in Durban.

[Produced in collaboration with Aidsmap.com]

Measures to reduce the burden of people seeking health care are also critical to improving the capacity of health systems to manage growing numbers of patients, numerous presenters at the conference confirmed. The new wave of interventions -- described as "differentiated care" in guidelines -- are intended to reduce clinic visits, waiting times, and monitoring requirements.

The benefits for patients include less time spent waiting in clinics and travelling to clinics, fewer out-of-pocket travel expenses, less time off work due to clinic attendance, and more support in the community for adherence to medication.

The benefits for health services come in the form of increased capacity to deal with growing patient numbers, more time to concentrate on patients with complex needs, and better retention of patients in care due to the use of community health workers and other community-level mechanisms for supporting treatment.

In new guidance issued ahead of the AIDS 2016, the World Heath Organization (WHO) urged national treatment programs to begin thinking in terms of delivering treatment to 4 different groups of patients, and tailoring services for each group accordingly:

  • People presenting when well: new patients who will need adherence and retention support as they start antiretroviral therapy (ART) and monitoring during the early months of treatment.
  • People with advanced disease: new patients who present with symptomatic HIV disease or CD4 counts below 200 cells/mm3, or who develop TB, who will need fast-track clinical care and more intensive follow-up.
  • Stable patients: people on treatment for at least 1 year with undetectable viral load, and not pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Unstable patients: people on treatment with detectable viral load, who need adherence support, possible second or third-line regimen switches, and monitoring for HIV drug resistance.

People can be expected to transition from one group to another over time, in the majority of cases from the "Presenting when well" to the "Stable" category.

"A one size fits all approach to care is no longer suitable," said Gottfried Hirnschall, director of the WHO HIV/AIDS program, introducing the guidance.

A new, differentiated approach to care is needed, said Anna Grimsrud of the International AIDS Society. "We’re not getting the retention in care that we need, so something is wrong for patients. We need to treat all, so we will need to treat more people, and in order to reach the 90-90-90 targets, we need to speed up," she told a pre-conference satellite meeting on differentiated care.

Differentiated care involves not only the shifting of tasks to new cadres in the health system, such as community health workers, but the assumption of responsibility for managing elements of their own care by largely self-organized patient groups. These mechanisms include the distribution of medication by patient groups, which may require changes in rules in many countries.

"One of the biggest barriers to differentiated care is regulatory -- rules that say this person cannot do this," said Carlos del Rio of Emory University.

The conference heard findings on a number of models for differentiated care including 6-monthly appointments, adherence clubs, and community ART refill groups.

But Eric Goemaere of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) warned that community services like adherence clubs are an extra cost. "Clinics still need to run," he said, pointing out that adherence clubs need to be understood as a mechanism to expand the volume of patients treated, not as a cost-saving mechanism.

Six-Monthly Appointments

A review of a switch to appointments every 6 months for clinically stable patients in Malawi found that the switch reduced attrition from HIV care and saved 30,000 clinician consultations in one district in 2014 alone.

MSF switched from monthly or 3-monthly appointments to 6-monthly appointments for clinically stable patients in its treatment program in Chiradzulu district as far back as 2008. Patients obtained drug refills from the pharmacy every 3 months. The program provides care for around 35,000 people, 95% of whom are now on ART.

The analysis looked at outcomes among 24,802 patients in treatment since 2008 who were eligible for 6-monthly appointments, of whom 18% did not take up the option of less frequent clinic visits. Those who did not enroll were significantly more likely to die or be lost to follow-up (adjusted odds ratio 3.09; 95% CI 2.47-3.87), possibly an indication that they were considered unsuitable for switching to less frequent clinical contact, despite being clinically stable. Overall, only 3% of those who were later enrolled to 6-monthly appointments were lost to care, compared to 35% of those never enrolled.

As for appointments saved, the analysis showed that a switch to 6-monthly appointments only began to have a substantial impact on the total number of clinician appointments in 2014, the first year in which clinician visits declined substantially. Presenting the results, Alison Wringe of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said that rollout of 6-monthly appointments had been relatively slow, but enrollment was expected to speed up with the introduction of routine viral load monitoring.

Streamlined Clinic Visits

The SEARCH study of community-based testing, expedited linkage to care, and HIV treatment for all found that its model of streamlined clinic care resulted in substantially shorter patient visits -- on average, around 1 hour less, and that both reduced waiting time and reduced clinical consultation time explained this difference.

"Nobody likes to wait, and in these communities, patients may wait up to 4 to 5 hours to see a clinician for 5 minutes," said Starley Shade of University of San Francisco at California, a member of the SEARCH study team. Anticipation of such long waiting times may deter patients from attending the clinic, especially if it involves a loss of income.

The SEARCH study used a streamlined care system in its intervention communities in Uganda and Kenya, in which nurses carried out triage of patients upon arrival at the clinic, directing patients through blood draws, clinician appointments, and pharmacy refill visits. The study included a time-and-motion element in which patients were given a form to carry through their clinic visit on which the start and finish times of each encounter with a service provider were recorded.

Researchers compared waiting times and entire clinic visit times for intervention clinics (353 patients) and government clinics (745 patients) providing standard-of-care services to the control arm in the study. They found a mean visit length of 1.08 hours for those with CD4 counts above 500 cells/mm3 and 1.13 hours for those with counts below 500 cells/mm3 at intervention clinics, compared to a mean of 2.35 hours at government clinics, of which over 2 hours was spent waiting, with the longest waiting times for a clinical service and for a pharmacy refill. A quarter of patients at government clinics spent more than 3.5 hours at the clinic.

The streamlined care model freed clinical staff to see patients in need of clinical attention, and also reduced the total number of patient visits each day due to better planning of clinic appointments.

Community ART Refills in Swaziland

Swaziland has extremely high HIV prevalence (31%), but many people who need ART are still untreated. Expanding the capacity of the health system to provide treatment in this largely rural country will require a shift towards community-based health care. MSF implemented a pilot program in Swaziland to evaluate the success of moving clinically stable patients on ART to community care models in 2015 and 2016.

Patients in different types of facilities were given the option of moving to various types of community care, all of which offered a reduced amount of clinic attendance:

  • Facility-based adherence clubs (3-monthly) where around 30 patients attend to pick up pre-packaged medications. Blood draws for viral load and clinical symptom reporting was done at each session.
  • Community ART groups of around 6 people, self-formed by patients, at rural facilities, in which members take turns collecting medication and attending the clinic. Group sessions the following day involve medication pick-up, pill counts, adherence support, and checking weight.
  • Outreach service for very remote areas, where pre-packaged medication is delivered monthly.

By the end of the second quarter of 2016, a total of 727 patients had been enrolled in community ART programs, 40% in 9 adherence clubs, 46% in 60 community ART groups, and 14% in 3 outreach communities.

Patients in each group had median CD4 cell counts above 500 cells/mm3 and had been on ART for more than 5 years. Visit attendance for each mode was very high: 96% for adherence clubs and community outreach and 100% for community ART groups.

There were 41 patients who returned to mainstream clinic care; patients were significantly more likely to be retained in adherence clubs than in community ART groups or in outreach care. The main reasons for returning to mainstream care were a lack of eligibility for community care in the first place, viral load test results that required clinical attention, and communication issues within the community ART group.

The MSF evaluation concluded that community management of ART is feasible and that community health workers and lay people have important roles to play in establishing and managing these services. Offering more than one model through a facility is likely to improve uptake.

Further Information

The International AIDS Society has developed a website on differentiated care which provides a decision framework for implementing differentiated models of care and a repository of models and resources.

  • MSF has summarized learning from a range of projects developed to support community ART delivery in a report, Reaching Closer to Home, which reports experiences of implementing various models in 6 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • MSF has produced a Community ART Group Toolkit, which offers advice and tools for establishing community ART groups.
  • MSF has produced an ART Adherence Club Report and Toolkit, which offers advice and tools for establishing adherence clubs.

8/10/16

References

C Cawley, S Nicholas, A Wringe, et al. Six-monthly appointments as a strategy for stable antiretroviral therapy patients: evidence of its effectiveness from seven years of experience in a Médecins Sans Frontières supported programme in Chiradzulu district, Malawi. 21st International AIDS Conference. Durban, July 18-22, 2016. Abstract FRAE020.

SB Shade, W Chang, JG Kahn, et al. SEARCH streamlined HIV care is associated with shorter wait times before and during patient visits in Ugandan and Kenyan HIV clinics. 21st International AIDS Conference. Durban, July 18-22, 2016. Abstract FRAE0203.

L Pasipamire, B Kerschberger, I Zabsonre, NLukhele, et al. Implementation of combination ART refills models in rural Swaziland. 21st International AIDS Conference. Durban, July 18-22, 2016. Abstract FRAE0204.