Are Casual HIV Testing, Education Attitudes Contribute to Higher Infections?

The last HIV test that I had with my doctor the results were provided to me like so:

Results come back in about a week. If you don’t hear from us within 10 days, then you don’t have to worry. It’s only if there is a problem that we would call you. If you want to contact us for the results; even if you don’t hear from us, you can, but if you hear nothing…

Back when I first started getting tested, you had to come back to the doctor’s office for the results; no matter what the results were. This evolved into getting a letter if you were negative and a call for a follow-up office visit if you were positive. It has now evolved into only getting contacted if you are HIV positive. This leads me to wonder if our casual attitude about HIV test results is helping to contribute to higher infections rates?

On one level, we are missing an opportunity to talk with our healthcare practitioners about HIV infection as it relates to our sex practices. HIV testing is the best opportunity where we can tell our doctor what were doing sexually and with whom. This gives us empowerment to really understand and be more educated about our risk, and potentially reducing it even further.

Our doctors are missing an opportunity as well. HIV testing is a good time to provide patients with information on infection rates in our area, across the country and around the world. With apps like Scruff, Grindr and MR. making it easier for the sexual traveler to make connections, knowing the infection rates of particular regions would help us to make better decisions about with whom we hook-up and what we do. When statistics are use as a means of information vs. scare tactic, it can be empowering, educational and help us make better decisions

On another level, the casual attitude toward test results (and even the casual methods of testing) may contribute to not taking HIV infection so seriously. As mentioned at the start of the blog when I was first getting tested, you had to go back for results. This had an impact on me about the seriousness of the disease. Because I had to return for results, the thought about possibly contracting HIV and what that would mean for me weighed more heavily in my mind. It was more at the forefront of my thoughts. Now, with the ‘we’ll call ya if there’s a problem’, it became an afterthought. Maybe I might follow up if I don’t hear anything; just to be sure, but maybe I won’t. I find myself thinking ‘If I have time’ I’ll call them, if not *shrug*.

The convenience of our testing is something else I see that may also led to a more casual attitude about protection and infection. A mid-year HIV test that I did took place in a drug store. A health group of volunteers in their 20s had me swipe a tab around my mouth and come back in 20 minutes for results. As I did the process I thought how much it reminded me of those little travel toothbrushes that you see; the ones where you a can scrape your teeth when there is no water or paste available. And I was getting my results in the back of the store, just behind the displays of sunscreen, flip flops and birthday cards. While the accessibility and ease of the testing was great, I find myself wondering how seriously you can take the disease when testing is as easy as freshening your breath. After my results, I was given a pamphlet on transmission and sent about my merry way. I didn’t read the pamphlet.

I consider myself pretty educated when it comes to HIV transmission. I grew up in an age where you really had to be. I grew up in that time when people feared getting HIV from handshakes, the air or toilet seats. That helped to shape the frank conversations with my doctor about my own risks. But even my attitude is changing. I am well aware of the ways of safer sex, but as the years go on and the process of testing and results becomes more lax, I have become more lax about reinforcing my safer sex education. For those who didn’t grow up in a time of battling ignorance to be educated about safer sex; for those who didn’t grow up in a time where testing and results was a stringent practice; for those who grew up in a time where, mercifully, HIV is treatable and where you can get get tested and get results with more ease than you would if you were doing testing for allergies, I wonder if that casual attitude around testing and results is leading to more casual attitude about safer sex protection and practice.

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