HIV Testing in GP Practices: Is More Support Needed?

Sexual health services are some of the most important services provided by GPs in the UK, and that includes HIV testing.

While HIV has benefitted from more effective treatments and more accurate diagnosis rates, there is still more work to be done. Recent HIV statistics show that the UK has surpassed global UNAIDS targets by ensuring 92% of those living with HIV are diagnosed.

However, this means that there are still 1 in 12 people who don’t know that they have HIV. Therefore, HIV testing within GP practices remains important to ensure that diagnosis rates continue to rise. It’s a challenging area for GPs, but the right approach could lead to further improvements in diagnosis and treatment rates of HIV sufferers.

HIV in the UK

Perception and awareness of HIV have grown considerably in recent years. Diagnostic rates are on the rise, as well as the number of people who are virally suppressed, meaning sufferers are in a much more positive position than they were a decade ago.

It remains important, however, to ensure that testing continues, and to make sure that people are offered testing where appropriate. There is a particular focus on making sure people are tested in high-prevalence areas, such as London and nearby locations.

Those who have the highest risk of contracting HIV include homosexual and black African men. Offering routine testing to people considered high-risk, especially if they present symptoms, could boost diagnostic rates even further and make sure they get the treatment they need. Common symptoms include initial flu-like symptoms that can appear after first contracting the virus. Other symptoms, such as weight loss, night sweats, and recurrent infections may not appear for a number of years.

HIV testing in GP practices

Despite hitting diagnosis targets, there are still many people living with undiagnosed HIV. As a result, there is a call for more regular HIV testing training for GPs and practice workers. Early HIV testing is key to ensuring patients receive the right treatment and prevent the virus from being passed on to others.

Greater training and awareness are also needed to help doctors manage HIV testing process more effectively. HIV testing is a sensitive issue, and broaching the subject of testing to a patient needs to be handled in a sensitive way. Confidentiality is important, but it is also important to protect the safety of other patients who could be at risk – particularly members of the same family or when there are vulnerable patients involved. There is GMC guidance available to GPs for these very situations.

Despite the difficulties involved in offering routine testing to patients, it’s important that efforts are boosted to test patients appropriately. A 2017 study which offered testing to new patients at practices led to 4x the number of diagnoses than it would have done without. The study argues that the investment in screening would provide value for money thanks to the added quality of life for patients. Routine testing could be a positive introduction for practices whilst ensuring that patients receive the best care in their communities.

Issues such as short GP appointments are of course a factor when ensuring a correct diagnosis, which is why GPs need to be extra vigilant. Having more time to focus on each patient could help GPs identify serious illnesses like HIV in the future.

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