Saskatchewan tries 'new and innovative' way to expand HIV testing

Pharmacists in Regina are at the forefront of a new HIV testing project, sparked by the fact that one in four people who have HIV are not aware of their status.

Regina pharmacy offering finger stick testing to all people walking through doors

A finger prick HIV test can give preliminary results quickly, but needs to be followed up with further testing. (Mainline/Twitter)

Pharmacists in Regina are at the forefront of a new HIV testing project, sparked by the fact that one in four people who have HIV are not aware of their status.

"We wanted to try a new and innovative way to reach different populations that weren't already accessing testing," said Susanne Nicolay, clinic and project coordinator with Wellness Wheel.

The non-profit organization's goal is to increase access to care for chronic diseases, including HIV in Saskatchewan, a province with the highest rates of HIV infection in the country.

Some people may not know they're at risk for HIV or know the risk factors, while providers might have their own assumptions about who is at risk for HIV, Nicolay told CBC Saskatchewan's Afternoon Edition

Now, the Wellness Pharmacy on 11th Avenue is offering HIV testing as part of its care to all people coming through the door, whether they're coming for methadone, diabetes medication or birth control.

Test a 60 to 90 second process

Nicolay said people anyone who accept the offer for HIV testing is taken to a private counselling space. There, pharmacists can talk to them about HIV and the testing process, and give them the option of a rapid point-of-care test.

That's a process that only takes 60 to 90 seconds, in order to give a preliminary result.

"Having been tested myself in this method, even though you think you know your life, in that 60 seconds, you think, 'Oh my gosh, could this be something here?,'" said Nicolay. "Whether you have risks or not, I think that's a pretty normal reaction."

If the person has a reactive result, and the test may indicate HIV, the pharmacist is then able to give them more information and support, she said. Four in 2,000 of these preliminary screenings may be falsely reactive, so follow-up testing is required, said Nicolay.

They're really well positioned to be that link to engage folks in care, if they do need that.- Susanne Nicolay , on pharmacists' ability to support patients 

The pharmacists at the site not only can provide support, but they can offer more resources and information for people, she said.

"They're really well positioned to be that link to engage folks in care, if they do need that."

At this point it's still unusual for Saskatchewan pharmacists to offer such a service, said Nicolay, explaining this program will study whether this testing model that could work elsewhere.  

"One of the things we want to get from this, is what's the feasibility and acceptability of pharmacists being able to offer this?" she said.

The study aims to find out not only if pharmacists like the model, but if patients like it and find it works for them.

"We know the earlier we can diagnose and engage people in care, the better outcomes they're going to have, the better health they're going to have and the longer life they're going to have."

with files from CBC Saskatchewan's Afternoon Edition

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