76% have witnessed infectious-disease stigma, new RCSI survey reveals

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L-R: Dr Amir K. Bachari, Dr Eoghan de Barra, former Taoiseach Dr Leo Varadkar, Michael O’Dea and Ellen Conlon.

A new survey from RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences reveals the urgent need for greater education about HIV stigma for healthcare workers and students. The survey was carried out during the development of a new online module on HIV stigma by the RISE project, based at RCSI’s Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine.

75% of those surveyed say they have witnessed stigmatising or prejudiced comments from a colleague about a person living with an infectious disease. Respondents shared examples of the stigma they witnessed, including unnecessary double gloving and the overuse or unnecessary use of personal protective equipment. They also reported witnessing the stereotyping of patients living with HIV as “intravenous drug users” and/or as “sexually promiscuous”.

Participants identified a lack of knowledge among healthcare workers about HIV transmission and risk factors, with just 42% of healthcare workers and 27% of healthcare students saying they received education on HIV stigma and discrimination. 

45% of the healthcare workers surveyed say they have completed further training or CPD related to HIV since their qualification. Of those who have not engaged with CPD on HIV, 68% say they would if it was available. 

Across all concepts tested in the survey, healthcare workers show better understanding than students. Across both cohorts, the most poorly understood concept is ‘treatment as prevention’ which refers to the taking of HIV medication to prevent sexual transmission of the infection.

RISE project

The survey findings were shared today during the launch of a new project aimed at providing education to healthcare professionals and students on HIV stigma and its impact on the patient population. 

The RISE (Redefining Institutional Stigma Education) project aims to bridge the gap in stigma education and enhance service providers’ understanding of the barriers to testing, treatment, and prevention by placing those impacted by HIV at the centre of an interactive online learning module. The innovative online learning module has been designed for healthcare professionals and students to address the challenges created by stigma. 

Dr Eoghan de Barra, consultant in infectious diseases at Beaumont Hospital and senior lecturer at RCSI, said: “According to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, there was 68% marked increase in total number of people diagnosed with HIV in Ireland in 2022. This highlights that even with increased effective prevention tools, those working within the health system will encounter more and more people living with HIV, highlighting the importance of ensuring all health care providers, regardless of role, are able to create a stigma-free environment for their patients.”

Dr Amir K. Bachari, RISE project lead, noted that: “Despite remarkable strides in HIV treatment development and accessibility to antiretroviral therapy, the enduring toll of HIV stigma persists within our communities.

“The RISE module represents a collaborative effort to empower healthcare professionals with the knowledge and skills necessary to combat stigma effectively. By equipping our healthcare workforce with comprehensive education on HIV stigma, RISE endeavours to foster a more inclusive and compassionate healthcare environment for people living with HIV.”

Speaking at today’s launch, Aoife Cummins, who is a registered nurse and a person living with HIV, reflected on the potential impact of RISE and said: “As a woman living with HIV I think it’s important that our voices are included in the education of healthcare students and workers going forward so we are no longer stigmatised in a setting where we should feel most understood.”

The survey, carried out between June and November 2023, was aimed at both healthcare workers and healthcare students in Ireland. The survey had 117 responses – 67 healthcare workers, 30 students and 20 'other'. 

RISE is supported by Gilead Sciences Fellowship Grant and through resources made available by RCSI, including the Student Engagement and Partnership (StEP) fund.

Healthcare workers and students who are interested in accessing the module can find out more here or via the project’s Instagram page @riseproject_ie.