Memorial University's pharmacy school is launching a six-month pilot project on Valentines Day to encourage people to get screened for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

The program, called APPROACH, will offer free, fast HIV testing in some pharmacies in Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta.

The goal is to discover whether a community, pharmacy-based HIV screening program is acceptable, feasible and effective in reaching those at high risk and those who have never been tested.

Two Shoppers Drug Marts are participating in the study — the location on Lemarchant Road in St. John's and one on West Street in Corner Brook.

Fast and confidential

Clients can request to have their finger pricked in a confidential blood test, in a private room at the pharmacy, without having to make an appointment.

Dr. Debbie Kelly, Memorial University School of Pharmacy

Dr. Debbie Kelly is one of the researchers overseeing the APPROACH HIV testing program. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Dr. Debbie Kelly, co-principal investigator with the project, said APPROACH was started under the assumption that people may not be getting HIV tests for various reasons, such as not having their own doctor.

"We think the pharmacy model lends itself very well to HIV testing," she told the Central Morning Show.

"Nobody knows why, when somebody goes into the private testing room, whether you're going in there to get a flu shot, if you're going in there for a medication review or if you're going in for an HIV test."

Kelly said in addition to actually administering the test, pharmacists are also trained in counselling, regardless of whether the person tests positive for HIV.

A big part of the program is to gather evidence from smaller communities, since right now most data around HIV testing comes from larger centres.

Normalizing testing

HIV testing is not currently part of a routine checkup at the doctor.  However new guidelines may require sexually active people to get tested at least every five years.

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People can ask for an on-the-spot HIV test using blood drawn from a finger prick. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

After six months, the APPROACH program will be reviewed and the input of both clients and pharmacists will be looked at. If it is proven to be a success, Kelly said it could be then rolled out on a bigger scale.

The main goal is to demonstrate that HIV testing can be done in an efficient manner which respects people's desire for privacy.

Kelly said the truth is that people simply aren't asking to be tested for sexually-transmitted infections as much as they should be — so the pharmacy program is a way to demonstrate how streamlined it can be.

"The more we can normalize testing and make having that conversation natural, the better," she said. "That being said, I think realistically we are a ways away from that."

With files from Central Morning Show