News | Rapid HIV testing pilots for Valentine’s

Health staff look to students for feedback on possibility of a permanent future for rapid HIV testing at McGill

Free, non-nominal, rapid HIV testing will be offered to students this Friday as part of the “Love Yourself!” campaign put on by McGill Health Services, in collaboration with the McGill Global AIDS Coalition and the Shag Shop.

The event, held partly in celebration of Valentine’s Day, will test the feasibility of offering rapid HIV testing on a permanent basis at McGill Health Services.

“From speaking to students, what has come out as the biggest barrier of accessing HIV testing is the wait times at McGill Health Services,” said Jamie Lundine, director of the McGill Global AIDS Coalition.

Rapid HIV tests – involving little more than a prick of the finger – would provide immediate results, since analysis is performed on-site. According to Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier, director of McGill Student Health Services, the minimum two-week waiting times associated with the HIV test currently offered at the McGill clinic may be a deterrent for many students to get tested at all – on-the-spot results may provide the extra incentive to go in and get tested.

“There’s no anxiety about waiting…and there’s also no anxiety, or even inconvenience, over coming back for results,” Tellier said.

The “Love Yourself!” campaign will be the first time rapid HIV testing will be made available at McGill. They have not previously been offered, in part because of financial constraints.

“[The Quebec government doesn’t] cover anything that is done in a ‘private lab,’ which is what we’re equal to. Whether it’s HIV testing or a urine test, it’s the same,” Tellier said. “Up until now we’ve absorbed the cost for all tests, but this one is a little more costly, so we don’t particularly want to put it in our budget right now.”

Friday’s free pilot program will be used, in part, to gauge the reaction of the student body to rapid HIV testing, as well as their willingness to pay $15 for the test if it were to be introduced permanently in the clinical setting.

Though McGill is not licensed to give anonymous HIV testing, “Love Yourself!” will provide non-nominal testing, which will separate students’ results from their charts.

“In the charts, all we [will] indicate is that a patient was seen, but not what for. There is no recording of the test or the results anywhere,” explained Allison-Joy Flynn, Health Promotion Officer for McGill Health Services.

Tellier did, however, note one drawback to rapid HIV testing: such tests are more susceptible to false positive results – when a test reports HIV-positive but a patient is really HIV-negative – than regular tests. A second, longer, confirmatory test is strongly recommended for all HIV-positive results to determine if the result is a true or false positive.

While regular HIV tests that report a false positive also should be followed by confirmatory tests, most labs will perform the second test immediately after the first so that they are returned to the patient together, meaning that false positives are ruled out before the patient sees any results. The problem with rapid testing is that even though patients would receive counselling, they would be unsure of their status until the second round of test results were received, causing heightened worry for that period.

Nonetheless, Tellier sees rapid testing as a big step for McGill Health in a positive direction.

“Rapid testing would be another option to give people, and if more people end up coming, it gives us more of an opportunity for education,” Tellier said. “On campus, the primary focus of HIV testing is really educating people [about HIV as well as other sexually transmitted infections], because the actual HIV prevalence we’ve detected on campus is extremely low.”

However, Tellier said that he has no specific expectations concerning turnout on Friday. He noted that the pilot project will hinge on the feedback of those who do come out and get tested, rather than on sheer numbers of participants.

“It’s more about the way things go on that day – how the nurses feel about administering it and how the students feel about it. Was it a key factor in their decision-making? That’s the kind of factors we’re looking at,” Tellier said.

“We just hope that the students can give us some usable feedback on Friday that can help us make our decision [in regards to rapid HIV testing].”