by Jack Hayes
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the disease that it causes, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), has presented itself as a challenging health issue around the world ever since the first patient was diagnosed in 1981. More than three decades later, despite revolutionary discoveries in therapy and robust improvements to accessing treatment, HIV and AIDS continues to take the lives of many each year. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV, and 1 in 7 of them don’t know they are infected. This unawareness is particularly common in young people, as 44% of 13-24 year olds living with HIV do not know it. Connecting HIV/AIDS patients with treatment opportunities continues to be a challenge. According to Avert, a UK-based organization fighting HIV and AIDS around the world, 3 in 4 people newly diagnosed with HIV were linked to treatment within a month of diagnosis, but only 56% of those patients continue to receive care. According to a 2014 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3,000 of these 1.1 million HIV+ Americans live in Allegheny County. I recently encountered one HIV/AIDS treatment center in the greater Pittsburgh area, and I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the work of the Allegheny Health Network’s Positive Clinic.
The Positive Clinic provides comprehensive care for HIV/AIDS patients in Pittsburgh. What struck me as incredibly impressive about the Positive Clinic’s services is the focus on holistic, personalized care. The Positive Clinic does not just provide medical HIV/AIDS treatment, but also a variety of other types of care. Positive Clinic patients receive psychiatric care, social service navigation, transportation assistance, nutritional counseling, and many other forms of care. These services help patients overcome the many barriers associated with fighting HIV/AIDS. The Positive Clinic is staffed with infectious disease physicians, internal medicine and family practice physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and many other types of healthcare professionals devoted to caring for this population of patients.
As a patient navigator at the Birmingham Free Clinic, my role is to assist patients in accessing the healthcare they need and, in turn, helping them overcome the barriers that prevent them from accessing it. Just recently, an HIV+ patient walked into our clinic. The patient told us his story: he had just recently moved to Pittsburgh with the goal of getting his HIV treatment back on track. We suggested the Positive Clinic. As the patient navigator, I assisted the patient with making an appointment and printed out a map and a bus schedule. A few days later, the patient came back into Birmingham, and he excitedly ran up to me to reflect on his his experience at the Positive Clinic. He was ecstatic that a multidisciplinary group of providers was able to give him such holistic care. He began to express his happiness with his new care and his gratitude for the Birmingham Clinic for assisting him in the process. This was the first time I provided any sort of service to an individual with HIV or AIDS. Before this encounter, I only knew the statistics -- 1.1 million people in the United States infected with HIV and a total of 36.7 million people worldwide. Although, these numbers are daunting and illustrate an overview of the issue, they tend to blur out the details of individual lives affected by the public health crisis of HIV. In assisting this patient and hearing his story, I now see HIV/AIDS through a new lens -- the person. Equally as important, I now understand the kind of holistic care required to provide for that person.