Stigma About HIV Persists Among Pharmacy Students

HIV knowledge is a significant predictor of the willingness to provide services to patients with HIV.

Pharmacy schools may want to consider placing a greater focus on HIV education, since a new study suggests there’s still HIV stigma among some pharmacy students.

The 150 third-year pharmacy students involved in the study had the following characteristics:

  • They were 62% female, and their mean age was around 22 years.
  • The majority attended high school in a suburban area, and 46% identified as Catholic, which was the dominant religion reported.
  • About 43% of the students said they were Democrat, while 36% identified as Independent, and about 16% said they were Republican.
  • Socially, a little more than half of the students said they were liberal, less than 20% said they were moderate, and around 16% said they were conservative.
  • Only 56% said they had taken a health class that contained content about HIV.
  • The majority of students said they never used intravenous or recreational drugs, but 19 of the 150 students said they either sometimes, often, or very often did.
  • More than half of the students (56%) said they never have unprotected sex, while nearly 30% said they sometimes did. Meanwhile, 8% said they often engaged in unprotected sex, and 6% said they did so very often.

The researchers acknowledged that the results may not be generalizable to pharmacy students across the country. However, the study, which was published in The American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, did show that HIV knowledge was an area of concern for at least this group of students.

Nearly 70% incorrectly said HIV can be contracted through saliva, sweat, tears, and urine, and around 40% incorrectly believed HIV is spread through mosquitoes. The Northeastern University researchers also found that HIV knowledge was a significant predictor of one’s willingness to provide services to patients with HIV.

“This data is concerning since it is the first pharmacy student study in the United States to indicate that negative attitudes toward persons with HIV are associated with decreased willingness to provide services to people living with HIV/AIDS,” they stated.

Some other key takeaways from the study were:

  • Students showed more willingness to provide services to patients with asthma than those with HIV/AIDS.
  • Factors that made a student more likely to be willing to provide services to patients with HIV included being older, a minority, being socially or politically liberal, and having greater HIV knowledge.
  • Students’ attitudes toward individuals with HIV varied, but many students didn’t seem willing to date someone with HIV or to eat at a restaurant where the chef had HIV. (The researchers believed students may be overestimating the likelihood of contracting HIV due to an injury in the kitchen.) However, there was more support for hiring an individual with HIV.
  • Pharmacy students reported especially empathetic feelings toward individuals with HIV who were infected because of contaminated blood or blood products, as well as those who were infected perinatally.
  • Students showed more empathy toward women infected with HIV from a male partner than men infected by another male partner. Sexual contact between 2 men that lead to HIV transmission was the circumstance that garnered the least amount of empathy from the pharmacy students.

One way to combat stigma associated with HIV is by surveying students early in the curriculum about their HIV education and willingness to provide services to patients with HIV/AIDS, and then starting conversations about why negative attitudes exist and how to resolve them, the researchers suggested. Pharmacy curricula should also make sure to dispel myths and misinformation about HIV.

“[E]ducators may need to focus on clarifying risks of exposure to HIV under different conditions of personal contact,” the researchers wrote.

Another way to improve attitudes toward HIV is to consider having infected patients talk to pharmacy students about how pharmacists have positively impacted their lives, the researchers added.