Testing and diagnosis for HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are important to detect new infections and bring people into care and treatment. Diagnoses of infections can not only improve the health of people living with HIV or STIs through care and treatment but it also helps to prevent new infections, thus controlling infection in communities.
Another potential strategy is to offer people an incentive to get tested. Monetary and non-monetary incentives have been successfully used to influence other health-related behaviours including HIV prevention4 and tuberculosis screening.5 This article summarizes the results from a systematic review which investigated the use of incentives to encourage testing for STIs, including HIV.6
According to 2014 estimates from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), over 16,000 of the 75,500 people living with HIV in Canada are unaware of their HIV status.7 This represents about 21% of all people with HIV but this proportion varies by population: 18% for men who have sex with men (MSM), 20% for people who use injection drugs, and 28% for heterosexual men and women.7
The importance of testing for HIV so that people are aware of their HIV infection as early as possible cannot be overstated, particularly given recent advances in our understanding of HIV treatment and prevention.
People who are aware of their HIV-positive status can access care and support services and start treatment when they are ready. Advances in treatment mean that people with HIV can live almost as long and as healthily as people who are uninfected.8 To get the most out of treatment, research shows it may need to be started soon after someone is infected with the virus.9
Currently, however, many people in Canada are not learning about their HIV status until late in their disease, when they start to develop symptoms or opportunistic infections.10,11 At this point, antiretroviral treatment can help improve health but not as effectively as when treatment is started earlier.
Knowledge of HIV status is also important for the prevention of HIV transmission. Research suggests that the majority of HIV transmissions originate from people who are unaware of their HIV status.12,13 However, generally, once people become aware of their HIV infection, they take steps to reduce their risk of transmitting HIV to others.14 Also, once diagnosed, treatment can be initiated, which significantly reduces a person's risk of HIV transmission.15,16
Rates of many STIs are on the rise in Canada.17,18,19,20,21 Testing for STIs is important because these infections are often asymptomatic, which can result in unknown transmission to sexual partners or progression to the more serious complications of infection. Having an untreated STI can also increase a person's risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV.
Treatment of STIs can help people avoid long-term complications and transmission to sexual partners, but only once they know their status.
A systematic review6 looked at the use of incentives as a potential strategy to encourage testing for STIs, including HIV.
The systematic review identified seven studies on the use of incentives to encourage STI testing. A study was included in the review if:
Characteristics of the seven studies included:
Six studies offered a monetary incentive and one offered a non-monetary incentive to complete different test uptake activities. Monetary incentives in the American studies ranged from 5 to 50 American dollars. The Australian study used 10 Australian dollars, while the study in Malawi used different amounts that averaged to 1.01 American dollars, or approximately one day's wage. The non-monetary incentive was a food voucher valued at about 10.30 American dollars. The authors note that the incentive values may not be directly comparable as they were offered in different countries and in different years.
Most studies offered the incentive as a fixed, direct payment; however, there were also some variations. In one American study participants were given a draw voucher for a chance to win up to $50. In the Malawian study, participants drew a token from a bag to determine the monetary amount they received, including the potential to draw a voucher for a zero amount.
The systematic review authors evaluated the effect of the incentives on STI testing by comparing the test uptake rate of the incentive-receiving intervention group to the test uptake rate of the comparison group that didn't receive incentives. While STI testing uptake was greater in the intervention group for all seven studies, five studies found that incentives significantly increased testing rates. In one of these studies, incentives increased testing in their community setting but not in their clinical setting. Test uptake was measured in several different ways, depending on the study:
In five studies there was a large difference between the test uptake rate of the incentive-receiving group compared to the group that didn't receive an incentive. The authors described a large difference as more than 15% between the testing uptake rate in the incentive group compared to the control group. For example, in the study with the largest effect, 77% of participants received their test results in the incentive group and 34% of participants received their test results in the non-incentive group.
The authors noted that the studies in the systematic review may indicate that incentives have a greater impact in some situations compared to others, including the following:
While these trends are consistent with the results of the individual studies contained in this systematic review, no analysis was conducted to formally test these findings.
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