Montreal doctor develops app for at-home HIV testing

But the app, called HIVSmart!, cannot serve its purpose because of current government regulations over saliva samples.

Dr. Nitika Pant Pai says challenge to eliminating HIV is stigma, which dissuades people from being tested

Dr. Nitika Pant Pai has been developing HIVSmart! for more than a decade. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

A Montreal doctor has created an app allowing people to have access to HIV testing from home. But for the time being, it can't be used in Quebec.

The app, HIVSmart!, was developed by McGill University Health Centre researcher Dr. Nitika Pant Pai. She said one of the challenges to eliminating HIV is stigma, which dissuades people from being tested.

"We are at the phase in the HIV epidemic where we can turn the tide," she said.​

The app encrypts the user's information for privacy and takes them through the steps of an HIV test.

It mimics a medical visit, answering questions and even providing a diagnosis, then links the person to a health-care provider if needed.

But in order to use it, the patient needs a saliva sample from a home-testing kit, which isn't legal in Canada.

Health Minister Danielle McCann said she wants "to decompartmentalize the professions in the health-care system" in order to improve access to first-line services. But she believes it's too early to move forward when it comes to self-testing.

Stigma persists

Montreal-based Centre Sida Amitié works to support people living with HIV or AIDS. Director Hugo Bissonnet says he thinks the app could be useful.

"We don't have a lot of tools in our toolbox," he said.

But he's concerned that despite the app making HIV testing more accessible for some, it won't help the marginalized people who come to centre.

He said many marginalized people don't have access to phones, and many in Quebec don't read, or don't read well enough to understand medical language in the application.

The app is designed to be used with an at-home swab kit and takes about 20 minutes to deliver results. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Dr. Réjean Thomas, founder of Montreal's Clinique Médicale L'Actuel, screens people for HIV and sexually-transmitted diseases at his downtown clinic.

He said between 15 and 20 per cent of people living with HIV don't know their status, and at least 25 per cent of people with HIV arrive at a doctor in the late stages of the illness because they weren't tested early enough.

Thomas enlisted hundreds of patients to try the app. They took the at-home, saliva-based HIV test at his clinic, then were provided with tablets equipped with the HIVSmart! app to guide them through the process.

He said in smaller cities, people are often less comfortable getting a test. Having the kit and app for personal use means people who are in high-risk groups can keep testing themselves as needed.

"If you live in Sherbrooke, or Gaspé, [there is] the question of confidentiality, the question of stigmatization, you know everybody in the village where you live," he said.

With files from Simon Nakonechny