Shifts to less frequent clinic visits and medication pick-ups to free up healthcare resources and make life easier for people living with HIV are being implemented successfully in some African countries, but still need fine tuning, several studies presented on Monday at the 9th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Science (IAS 2017) show.
The studies looked at the practice of multi-month prescribing, by which clinics provide several months of antiretroviral drugs at one time to people living with HIV in their care, in order to reduce the need for monthly clinic visits to pick up refills of medication. Frequent clinic visits can be difficult to manage, especially if the clinic is a long way from home, transport is unaffordable or working hours prevent attendance at the clinic.
Less frequent clinic visits have been associated with better retention in HIV care in a large study in Zambia, and in other southern African countries, and also have the potential to reduce clinic congestion and increase the number of people who can be started on antiretroviral therapy (ART) as countries move to 'Test and Treat' guidelines recommending treatment for all people living with HIV.
The practice of multi-month prescribing is central to the concept of differentiated care, through which people with less complex medical needs can receive more care in the community in order to free up medical resources for people who are sicker, those starting treatment and those with viral rebound.
Multi-month prescribing will not be suitable for everyone. In Malawi, for example, multi-month prescribing is offered to adults who have been on ART for at least six months, who have a viral load below 1000 copies/ml and good adherence. People with opportunistic infections or tuberculosis are required to attend the clinic more frequently. These criteria are designed to ensure that people with more complex clinical needs, and those who have recently started treatment, are not lost to follow-up.
Multi-month prescribing in practice: Malawi
But how does multi-month prescribing work out in practice? A survey of 30 health care facilities in Malawi shows that although two-thirds of people who are eligible for multi-month prescribing are receiving their medication in this way, so too are 42% of people who are not eligible for multi-month prescribing.
The survey, presented by Margaret Prust of the Clinton Health Access Initiative, looked at 75,364 people receiving treatment at 30 clinics in 2016. Eighty-six per cent of patients were eligible and, of these, 73% were receiving multi-month prescribing. However, 42% of those ineligible for multi-month prescribing were receiving it too – approximately 5% of all patients. More than three-quarters of ineligible patients shifted to multi-month prescribing had detectable viral load above 1000 copies/ml and 39% of ineligible patients had not been on ART long enough to qualify.
A survey of health care workers and interviews with clinic managers explored the reasons for providing multi-month prescribing to patients who were not eligible.
A lack of knowledge of the criteria for shifting patients to multi-month prescribing was a major reason for failing to offer multi-month prescribing or offering it to the wrong patients, but ineligible patients were also being moved to multi-month prescribing to reduce clinic workload or if they asked for it. Margaret Prust said that a need to travel to work far away from the clinic often motivated these requests.
Further training and job aids are needed for health care workers to help them to distinguish which patients are eligible, the study investigators concluded; better alignment of electronic and paper records would also ensure that health care workers have up-to-date information about viral load results, for example.
Multi-month prescribing for children and young people
Although multi-month prescribing has been restricted largely to adults in Malawi, Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative has been offering multi-month prescribing for children and adolescents at health care facilities in six African countries. So far, just over 15,000 children have been moved to multi-month prescribing and viral load suppression remains high. Only 1.8% of patients switched to multi-month prescribing have been lost to follow-up.
The study looked at the clinical outcomes of children and adolescents shifted to multi-month prescribing in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi, Uganda and Tanzania. Children and adolescents were eligible for multi-month prescribing if they were clinically stable and adherent to ART, after six to nine months of monthly prescription pick-ups.
On average, children and adolescents shifted to multi-month prescribing attended the clinic every 61 days, compared to a mean interval of 39 days between visits for those on monthly prescribing. Patients who shifted to multi-month prescribing tended to have better long-term outcomes, as one would expect in a group of patients selected for the intervention on the basis of good short-term outcomes.
But, said Professor Maria Kim of Baylor Children’s Foundation, the take-home message of the study was that children continued to do well after switching to multi-month prescribing. The study found no differences in loss to follow-up between different age groups switched to multi-month prescribing, nor between countries.
Community-based adherence clubs
Another model of reducing clinic visits is to devolve medication pick-up to adherence clubs in the community. A member can be assigned the responsibility to visit the clinic every two to three months to pick up medication for the other members of the club, or a nurse can attend the club to deliver drugs and draw blood for viral load testing. Members attend the club for counselling and to pick up their medication.
"Frequent clinic visits can be difficult to manage, especially if the clinic is a long way from home, transport is unaffordable or working hours prevent attendance at the clinic."
Community adherence clubs developed by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in South Africa have shown promising results in observational studies.
Results of a two-year randomised study comparing community and clinic-based adherence clubs were presented by Colleen Hanrahan of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore. The study was carried out at Witkoppen Clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa, where 775 adults were randomised to attend a clinic- or community-based adherence club every two months.
The primary outcome of the study was the proportion of people in each study arm referred back to standard clinic-based care. Patients were referred back to standard clinic-based care if they missed a club visit without ART pick-up within 5 days, had two consecutive late ART pick-ups, developed a comorbidity requiring closer monitoring, or had viral load rebound. Women who became pregnant during the study were also referred back to the clinic.
The study population was approximately two-thirds female (65%) and had a high median CD4 cell count (506 cells/mm3). Participants were followed for two years. After two years, 57% of people in the clinic-based clubs were retained in care and had suppressed viral load compared to 47% in the community-based clubs (p = 0.003). The most common reasons for loss from club care and referral back to the clinic were missing a club visit and failing to pick up medication, and viral load rebound.
Prust M et al. Multi-month refills of antiretroviral drugs for stable patients in Malawi: assessing accuracy in the application of eligibility criteria at the health facility level. 9th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Science, Paris, abstract MOAD0104, July 2017.
Kim M et al. Multi-month prescription of antiretroviral therapy and its feasibility: experiences from the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS initiative (BIPAI) in six southern African countries. 9th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Science, Paris, abstract MOAD0105, July 2017.
Hanrahan C et al. Retention in community versus clinic-based adherence clubs for stable ART patients in South Africa: 24 month final outcomes from a randomized controlled trial. 9th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Science, Paris, abstract MOAD0106, July 2017.