Pozhet was fortunate to participate in the 2020 Joint Australasian HIV&AIDS and Sexual Health Conference: VIRTUAL which was held from 16 – 20 November. We have noted some of the highlights and discussion points for those who were not able to attend.
The Conference was at the end of a challenging year and COVID-19 was present in sessions and discussions, particularly around the impact the pandemic and resulting lockdown had on service provision for both the sector and the broader health areas.
Many presenters drew attention to the value of digital health care which has been well accepted by staff and patients. Telehealth had its origins prior to 2020 but was rapidly implemented on a much broader scale once the pandemic arrived. An early session about the effects of COVID-19 on HIV and sexual health services summarised changes which we all saw during 2020. There was a general reduction in face to face sexual health services, including sexual health screening and testing. There was however an increase in telehealth consultations.
We heard that telehealth has multiple benefits including the reduction of disease exposure for staff and patients and a reduction in the risk of community transmission. However, there were many reminders that digital health care is not the perfect fit for everyone. As an example, the Kirketon Road Centre had a limited uptake in telehealth as many of their clients have limited access to internet or phones with the majority of their clients preferring to engage with clinicians face-face even during COVID-19. It is important that options are provided.
Another conference session, The Importance of Emotional and Psychological Wellbeing and Mental Health, brought to light how mental and physical health of people living with HIV (PLHIV) has been impacted during COVID-19. The panel of speakers discussed how many PLHIV experienced re-traumatisation and fear as COVID-19 triggered experiences of their initial diagnosis of HIV, and the stigma related to community fears about HIV.
We heard again how many services found their clients were fearful to seek medical treatment, with resistance to attend face-to-face appointments and using public transport. Speakers talked about navigating these challenges through creative service delivery, within multidisciplinary teams, to support PLHIV overcome their fear and anxiety. The health sector was encouraged to be proactive and innovative to maintain the delivery of information, treatment, and overall support to assist PLHIV through the challenges of the pandemic.
Speakers agreed that Australia had made rapid progress regarding HIV elimination, but was still off-target to eliminate HIV by 2022. Strategies discussed included: diversifying testing methods, scaling up PrEP and ensuring that HIV prevention programs which target marginalised communities take into account the economic, social and related issues which may be far more pressing to these communities than HIV.