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Report offers a way to overcome the severe lack of HIV providers

Dec. 4, 2023, 11:03 AM


by Bill Snyder

In a world wearied by COVID-19, it’s hard to remember the AIDS epidemic, which claimed the lives of nearly 450,000 Americans.

Today drugs are available to stop the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in its tracks, and public health efforts restrain the spread of AIDS. Yet more than 40 years after it first reached our shores, HIV is still with us.

In Tennessee, the number of new HIV cases reported by the state Department of Health jumped by nearly 17% between 2017 and 2021. That year, the most current data available, nearly 20,000 Tennesseans were living with HIV, and more than 400 died of HIV-related complications.

Even as the AIDS count inches upwards, the number of physicians trained to treat the disease is dwindling.

Of any region in the country, the South has the greatest burden of new HIV diagnoses in patients who have the least access to life-saving antiviral medications. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an astounding 80% of counties in this region lack experienced HIV providers.

In a new report, members of the Southeast AIDS Education and Training Center, which is coordinated by Vanderbilt University Medical Center, offers an innovative approach to increasing the HIV workforce: train all manner of health professionals to care for people with HIV.

Called “interprofessional education,” the plan seems to be working.

From 2015 to 2022, more than 6,000 health professional students in fields ranging from medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and dentistry, to social work, physical therapy, and speech-language pathology received training at VUMC, the University of Florida, the University of Kentucky and the University of South Carolina.

Students who completed the training reported an increase in their comfort level in providing professional care for people with HIV, and in their ability to provide HIV-related services. At least 15 redirected their career paths to serve people with HIV.

A small step, perhaps. But unless there are many such small steps, we will remain ever vulnerable to scourges of the present, the future and, inevitably, the past.

The report, titled “Interprofessional Education: An Innovative Approach to Increase the HIV Workforce,” was published Nov. 7 in Open Forum Infectious Diseases, a journal of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and the HIV Medicine Association.

The paper’s corresponding author is Sadie Harris, EdD, MEd, manager of Educational Initiatives and Information Systems for the Southeast AETC. Co-authors include Jennifer Burdge, Southeast AETC program director; Cody Chastain, MD, associate professor of Medicine; and Anna Person, MD, associate professor of Medicine – all in the VUMC Division of Infectious Diseases.

The Southeast AETC is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, under grant number U1OHA30535.

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