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The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommends HIV Screening -- And Why Is This News?

By Paul E. Sax, M.D.

November 22, 2012

A flurry of coverage recently appeared about the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force's recommendation for one-time HIV screening for all Americans, ages 15-64.

Some might wonder why this is news -- um, hasn't this been recommended now for years? -- and I think I've figured it out.

Let me start by relaying that every ID/HIV specialist can tell some version of the following sad story, which is still repeated on a regular basis (including just the other day, in our very own hospital):

Because the above sequence of events is all but 100% preventable with early identification of HIV -- and because people who are unaware they are infected continue to spread the virus -- in 2006 (yes, it was that long ago) the CDC made a big splash by recommending one-time HIV screening for adolescent and adult patients in all health care settings.

(They also said that high-risk patients should be screened annually -- unfortunately this is all too rarely done, but that's an issue for a different day.)

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To say that the ID/HIV provider community (docs, nurses, PAs, social workers) supported the CDC recommendations is like saying dermatologists support wearing sunscreen and a hat in the tropical sun.

"Support" just isn't strong enough -- we were strongly, unanimously, and vociferously behind them, so much so that virtually every lecture on HIV for the next several years mentioned the guidelines. To us, this was a total no-brainer -- how could anyone oppose screening?

Indeed, the American College of Physicians, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics all came out with guidelines that said pretty much the same thing.

But not everyone did agree -- namely, on the books already were guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, who had come out with their recommendation in 2005 for risk-based testing only.

For the unaware, the USPSTF is "an independent group of national experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine that works to improve the health of all Americans by making evidence-based recommendations about clinical preventive services such as screenings, counseling services, or preventive medications."

I picture these USPSTF folks with hats, T-shirts, and coffee mugs emblazoned with "Evidenced-Based Only, Please." Nothing speaks more clearly about their mission than these slide presentations entitled "Too Much Prevention" and "What Not to Do in Primary Care". In plain English, the presenters make the excellent case that many well-intentioned screening strategies don't help patients -- and actually hurt them by uncovering clinically silent conditions that lead inexorably to procedures and medical treatments that are harmful and expensive.

Most cancer screening (infamously PSA) falls into this category. Cardiac CT. EKGs. Regular physical exams. Spirometry as a screen for COPD. Routine urinalysis. RPR. Hepatitis C testing (ahem).

And I generally agree with them. But HIV testing? That cheap, accurate test that identifies a clinically silent, eventually deadly infection that is both treatable and can be spread to others? Don't they realize that the "risk-based" testing they favored has been a failure?

Well now they do. In the plain language so characteristic of this committee, they write:

Previous studies have shown that HIV screening is accurate, targeted screening misses a substantial proportion of cases, and treatments are effective in patients with advanced immunodeficiency. New [well, "new" since 2005!] evidence indicates that ART reduces risk for AIDS-defining events and death in persons with less advanced immunodeficiency and reduces sexual transmission of HIV.

The bottom line is if this group recommends screening, it must be the right thing to do. Because these guys are tough.

Welcome to the club, USPSTF.

Paul Sax is Clinical Director of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital. His blog HIV and ID Observations is part of Journal Watch, where he is Editor-in-Chief of Journal Watch AIDS Clinical Care.




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