People living with HIV refused surgery or put last on waiting lists, research shows

Just 42 per cent of healthcare workers and 27 per cent of healthcare students surveyed by RCSI said they received education on HIV stigma and discrimination

People living with HIV have been refused surgery, been put last on waiting lists or face reluctance from healthcare staff around taking blood samples, new Irish research suggests.

The report, published by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland on Tuesday, found more than three quarters of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers including medical students have seen discrimination from their colleagues towards patients with infectious diseases.

The survey, which had 117 responses from healthcare workers and students, identified some examples of stigma witnessed in the workplace, such as unnecessary double gloving, and the overuse or unnecessary use of personal protective equipment.

“Both groups reported instances of differential treatment of patients living with HIV. These included anecdotes about the refusal to carrying out surgical procedures, reluctance to take blood samples, placing individuals last for procedures, and changing an individual’s resuscitation status for patients with HIV,” the report said.

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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 per cent of healthcare workers and 27 per cent of healthcare students saying they received education on HIV stigma and discrimination.

The results were published following the launch of a new, online educational module which seeks to tackle stigma around HIV in the health service.

Called Rise (Redefining Institutional Stigma Education), it seeks to provide factual information around HIV that places patients at the centre.

Aoife Cummins, a registered nurse who is living with HIV, said she encountered significant difficulty when seeking a test for the virus, due to the stigma among healthcare workers.

After she was diagnosed, she was undergoing surgery in Ireland when a doctor told her she was a “risk” despite being on medication that prevents transmission.

“It is treated as a moral issue, rather than a medical issue,” she said. “There needs to be so much more education among healthcare workers. If we keep educating our healthcare workers, then that would be one corner I don’t have to keep fighting.”

Dr Eoghan de Barra, consultant in infectious diseases at Beaumont Hospital and senior lecturer at RCSI, said according to the most recent official figures, there was a 68 per cent increase in the 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 healthcare providers, regardless of role, are able to create a stigma-free environment for their patients,” he said.

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

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is Health Correspondent of The Irish Times