Improving engagement in HIV care for high-risk women

Investigator: Jae Sevelius, PhD
Sponsor: NIH National Institute of Mental Health

Location(s): United States


The proposed trial is grounded in a novel transgender-specific framework and is the culmination of years of work in a community at heightened risk for HIV treatment failure and transmission of HIV to others. If effective, the proposed intervention approach has the potential to optimize health outcomes in a population highly burdened by HIV while preventing further transmission.

Transgender women (assigned `male' at birth but who do not identify as male) are disproportionately impacted by HIV and have culturally unique barriers and facilitators to engagement in HIV care. Transgender women living with HIV (TWH) are less likely than others to take antiretroviral therapy (ART), and those who initiate ART have lower rates of ART adherence, lower self-efficacy for integrating ART into daily routines, and report fewer positive interactions with health care providers than non-transgender adults. As a result, TWH have an almost three-fold higher viral load than non-transgender adults in San Francisco; in Los Angeles, TWH are less likely to be virally suppressed than any other behavioral risk group. In our formative work, we have identified culturally-specific and modifiable barriers to HIV treatment engagement among TWH, including prioritization of transition-related health care (i.e. hormone therapy) at the expense of HIV treatment, avoidance of HIV care settings due to past negative health care experiences, misinformation about ART including potential drug interactions with hormones, intensified HIV stigma, low levels of social support, and poor coping skills. There are both individual and public health consequences to poor engagement in care among TWH stemming from high transmission risk factors, including substance abuse, high numbers of sex partners, engagement in sex work, and high rates of mental illness. These findings strongly suggest that TWH face unique challenges to engaging in and adhering to HIV treatment, and that the public health consequences for poor engagement in this population are of grave concern. Interventions to mitigate these barriers to engagement in care are critical in efforts to alter the pattern of HIV-related disparities that lead to disproportionately poor health outcomes for this highly vulnerable and marginalized population. We propose a randomized controlled trial of a theory- driven, population-specific, piloted intervention to improve engagement in care for TWH. Grounded in the investigators' Models of Gender Affirmation and Health Care Empowerment, the proposed research is the first to systematically intervene on complex barriers to optimal engagement in HIV care for TWH. We have developed and piloted the Healthy Divas intervention to optimize engagement in HIV care for TWH at elevated risk for treatment failure and consequential morbidity, mortality, and transmission of HIV.