Testing for HIV at home: The major benefits

While new technologies such as EHR software and patient portals have helped improve communication between healthcare providers and patients, there has also been a boom in technological platforms that can empower patients to take greater control over the management of their own health. For example, there are now a range of smartphone apps that can help patients manage and learn more about a number of chronic conditions. There are also phone platforms dedicated to preventative health measures, such as exercise and nutrition.

Another form of technology that has been making waves in terms of personal health management is home testing kits. As reported by Everyday Health, it is now possible for individuals to test for certain illnesses using testing kits purchased at pharmacies. Examples of conditions that can be tested for at home include allergies, urinary tract infections, strep throat, and a range of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Home testing for HIV, especially, carries a range of benefits. Perhaps the most major upside to home testing, according to Healthline is that knowledge is power - HIV is a chronic condition, so the sooner individuals know they are infected, the sooner they can begin treatment that can prolong their lives and decrease their risk of passing the disease on to others. Healthline noted, citing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that out of the U.S. adults living with HIV, as many as 1 in 8 do not know they are infected, which again highlights the need for wider access to testing.

This article will take a closer look at HIV, common testing methods and some of the major benefits of the home testing kits. 

Understanding HIV
As detailed by the Mayo Clinic, HIV is an an acronym that stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The illness works by attacking the body's first line of defense against illness - the immune system. This occurs when the virus kills the cells that make up the immune system - T Cells, the CDC added. If left to develop without treatment, HIV can progress into a condition known as Acquired Immunodeficiency Disease (AIDS), which essentially marks the breakdown of the immune system, to the point where opportunistic infections and certain cancers can threaten a patient's life. The Mayo Clinic elaborated that there is no cure for HIV or AIDS, but that both conditions can be managed with medication. Treatment is most effective when the illness is detected early, at the HIV stage, which is why routine testing is so crucial.

The Mayo Clinic explained that HIV is transmitted through certain bodily fluids - blood, semen, breast milk and vaginal fluids. An individual can become infected with HIV after the fluids of an HIV-positive person enters his or her body. Some of the primary ways through which this can occur include having vaginal or anal sex, sharing needles to facilitate drug use and via pregnancy - an HIV-positive mother can pass the virus on to her unborn child in utero. There is also a small risk of HIV transmission in a medical setting via blood transfusions.

Using drugs intravenously and having unprotected sexual intercourse markedly increase one's risks of contracting the illness. Effective preventative strategies, therefore, include using protection while having sex and refraining from drug use. The CDC noted that there is also a preventative medication - PrEP - that high-risk populations can take to lower their chances of getting the disease. A number of studies have shown it to be highly effective. 

The importance of routine testing
As noted, routine testing for HIV is the most effective way for patients to stay healthy and reduce the spread of the virus. The CDC explained how early detection through testing allows those with the virus to begin a lifelong course of antiretroviral therapy (ART), which helps to keep them healthy and reduces the chance of transmission to others - the risk of transmission to others can be slashed by as much as 96 percent if someone takes ART. Furthermore, those taking ART typically have similar life expectancies to those without the virus. The importance of routine testing is therefore conspicuous.

While testing is available from healthcare providers, there is now another option for those who are reluctant to make an appointment with their provider. Home testing kits are available in the U.S., although as detailed by CATIE, only two brands of HIV testing kits have been given the green light by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration - OraQuick and the Home Access HIV-1 Test System. The former test makes use of a swab and tests a sample of saliva. The later test utilizes a blood sample. The Home Access HIV-1 Test System requires individuals to send their samples away for testing, while the OraQuick test can provide a result at home within 20 minutes.

The Body explained that home tests have been shown to as effective and accurate as rapid rests administered in healthcare facilities. Patients are cautioned, however, to only use FDA-approved testing kits - there are kits available that don't have the FDA seal of approval, and there is a chance they may be less accurate. 

The benefits of home testing
As detailed, there are multiple benefits to using the in-home testing technology. Some of the most compelling include:

1. Confidentiality
For many, knowing one's HIV status is a confidential matter. While healthcare professionals are of course mandated by law to protect patient privacy, some people still have reservations about visiting primary care providers, especially when it concerns intimate topics such as sexual health. As such, testing at home provides a high level of confidentiality that can make some individuals feel more in control of their situation. 

An article from NAM aidsmap surveyed the attitudes of some individuals to testing and the home tests. One young man elaborated on why the confidentiality afforded by home testing was important to him.

"It's better because you can take this and go home. Nobody sees your results. Only you know. I prefer that it's confidential. I know that I do have HIV but nobody saw me, it's me alone. Now it's my duty to go there and take the ARVs." he explained.

2. Accessibility
Home testing can also be an effective option for those who may experience barriers to healthcare - they may not have insurance, live in an underserved or rural community or have a disability that prevents or limits travel. Given that home tests can be purchased online, over the phone or at most pharmacies, they are generally much more accessible, The Body maintained.

3. Convenience
For many, the sheer convenience of home testing kits make them an attractive alternative, Mountain View Hospital explained. Individuals don't have to take time away from work or other commitments with home testing, which is not the case when making an appointment with a healthcare professional. 

4. Ease of use
Self testing kits have been widely shown to be straightforward to use. CATIE reported on a study from the U.S., in which a vast majority of respondents - some 96 percent - found the OraQuick test, specifically, easy to use.

In any case, those who decide to use the home testing kits are advised to seek guidance from healthcare professionals if they do test positive for HIV.

Kevin McCarthy's picture

Kevin McCarthy

Industry News Editor

An avid traveler and news junkie, Kevin covers a range of topics from healthcare technology to policy and regulations. As a former journalism student, he enjoys finding stories relevant to small practices and is passionate about keeping them informed. Before joining NueMD, Kevin worked for Turner Broadcasting as a Programming Intern where he conducted legal research and contributed to editorial content development. He received his bachelor's degree in Communication from Kennesaw State University and currently serves as the Industry News Editor at NueMD.

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