June 27 is National HIV Testing Day, so Pharmacy Times® sat down with Brad McElya, PharmD, director of Specialty Health Solutions at Walgreens, to discuss the importance of HIV testing.
Q: To start, how did the pandemic impact testing and screening for HIV?
Brad McElya: First, I just want to say thank you for having me on this very important day. For us, National HIV Testing Day is a very important day. We've been a part of this for since 2011, so very happy to be here, considering it an honor. To your question about how to how did COVID impact HIV testing specifically, one of the things that we've seen is that throughout the pandemic, the numbers of tests that have been available to individuals has decreased significantly. The CDC even reported that upwards of 50% of test have declined. So what we know from that is that the pandemic really had a significant impact.
Because if individuals are not able to get into testing, then they're not able to know their HIV status, and knowing your HIV status is critically important because it's a necessary component to either get into antiretroviral therapy, or to take preventative steps, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis to ensure that an individual is protected from acquiring HIV. It's significantly impacted because the amount of tests that were available, and then individuals obtaining an HIV test, and therefore knowing their HIV status, subsequently declined as well.
Q: Why does HIV impact certain communities more than other, such as the LGBT community?
I think that we have 2 things that we still have not been able to achieve. I think 1 is in terms of awareness as well as access for various communities, and so there still needs to be considerable work done around increasing education around the need for an HIV test for those that may be at risk of acquiring HIV. The educational component or awareness component as well as making sure that individuals within various communities have the access to the testing services, as well as the medication services, that can help prevent them from acquiring HIV in the first place. The 2 staples there, in my opinion, 1: education or awareness, as well as, secondly, access.
I believe that if we put some considerable effort around those 2 areas, in the communities that are most impacted right now, and we can really make a difference. That's what we're very passionate about in terms of Walgreens making sure that we're doing both of those to ensure that individuals within whatever community it may be and have the education as well as the access right where they are.
Q: What is Walgreens planning for June 27 this year?
I’m very excited to announce that we are back in our stores for in store activation or in store testing. We've done this since 2011, with a brief break during the pandemic because we couldn't have community-based organizations and health departments and in our stores. But since 2011, we have invited community-based organizations and health departments into our stores to offer free HIV testing. I'm happy to announce that we're back in about 250 cities today with over 300 health departments and community-based organizations in our stores to ensure that patients have access to a critically important HIV test, and they can get it for free. We’ve been receiving messages for people in our stores getting free HIV test, and we're really, really excited to be back in our stores offering this critically important service.
Q: How can pharmacists screen for HIV effectively?
It starts with being a trusted health care professional. So being available within the communities that we serve is a critically important point. So about 78% of Americans live within 5 miles of a Walgreens pharmacy. Being a trusted health care professional embedded within communities. That's really the starting point for us. From there, we have to ensure that our pharmacists are educated, and they know individuals that may be at risk of acquiring HIV and how to potentially help them. So we take training at Walgreens very seriously. We take cultural competency, ensuring that the pharmacists and pharmacy team members have the tools and the resources they need in order to provide services to our patients. So, starts with access, but then also coupled with training, and then really comes down to being available.
Whenever individuals have questions, whether they want to know where I can get a free HIV test and we can provide answers to them. If they want to know various different community organizations that may have other services available, we can point them in the right direction as well. So it's critically important for us to make sure that we have access, we have the training, as well as really the availability to ensure that individuals that may have questions about should I get an HIV test? Or should I take pre-exposure prophylaxis that we can make sure that they get their questions answered?
Q: What can pharmacists do to help promote HIV testing and treatment, including PrEP?
It kind of goes back to what my previous answer was, but really being available. Then also knowing how to point people in the directions that they need to go. I think that, in addition, we're also in a future to where, because of COVID, we've seen what role a pharmacist can play in helping to really make a difference in a pandemic. I think that those lessons can easily be applied to the HIV epidemic. So, whether it's how do I obtain an HIV test? What can I do to protect myself from acquiring HIV? Really being that trusted health care professional that can answer a patient's questions and serve as an access point.
We have, you know, greater than 9000 stores scattered around the country. So you can see from a from an access perspective, if we make sure that all of our pharmacists or at least within Walgreens enterprise are equipped to answer questions, then we can really make a difference. I think we're also looking at a future to where pharmacists would be able to offer the HIV tests themselves and to potentially prescribe a pre-exposure prophylaxis. We've seen a handful of states recently that have passed legislation that will allow our pharmacists to be able to prescribe at least in limited quantities, PrEP. What we've seen based upon research and the clinical trials with pre-exposure prophylaxis is it can really make a big difference of patients’ lives and to prevent them from acquiring HIV and all of that is critically important.
Q: Any Closing Thoughts?
It is an important day for us today. I would encourage anyone that's interested in learning more about some of our services to visit https://www.greaterthan.org/free-testing-nhtd-2022/. You can find out about where testing services are available in various cities, and then also have resources to help answer individuals’ questions that they may have. Thank you again so much on this very important day.