Removing the stigma of HIV testing

January 11, 2013

If you head east of the Anacostia River, quality health care is often in short supply. So is honest conversation about HIV and AIDS. But with the disease still at near-epidemic levels in many neighborhoods around the District, one clinic is taking an aggressive approach toward making the conversation about the issue more acceptable.

At the Infectious Disease Center of Excellence, housed in United Health Center on Southern Avenue in Southeast, Lisa Fitzpatrick and her team provide more than just testing; they are leading a campaign to remove the stigma associated with HIV testing and being HIV-positive.

“This is a chronic, treatable disease now, and we want people to treat HIV just like they do diabetes,” she said. “We want [doctors] to say, ‘I am assessing to see whether or not you have a treatable condition.’ Like HIV, like diabetes, like hepatitis, like kidney disease.

“Go back to the ’80s and ’90s, where all the perceptions were established about this disease,” she added. “A lot of the doctors that are still treating now and the ones that run the influential organizations, they’re all from the era when HIV was thought of as a stigmatized, homosexual, black-box disease,”

Indeed, this approach is part of the clinic’s culture.


Lisa Fitzpatrick of the Infectious Disease Center of Excellence at United Medical Center is taking an aggressive approach in getting her patients tested for HIV/AIDS. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“From my 10 to 12 years of working around this issue, there are three things that pretty consistently come up for why people don’t get tested or stay in treatment,” said Khadijah Tribble, director of business operations for the clinic. “This clinic is different because it addresses all of those issues in our makeup.

“We are . . . a one-stop shop,” she added. “We couldn’t have a treatment clinic without building in social support systems. We have a case manager on site. We have a psychotherapist on site. We consult with a nutritionist, we consult with a psychiatrist. We have all of those components built into our model of care.”

Fitzpatrick, who sits on D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s commission on HIV/AIDS, previously worked as an associate professor of medicine at Howard University. Working with United Health Care, her goal is to make HIV tests routine. Her clinic is in the facility formerly known as the Greater Southeast Community Hospital.

“The point of routine screening is, when you go and interact with a health-care provider, we want you to be tested for HIV. It’s like they would not think of coming in and seeing you without checking your blood pressure. We want to add HIV like that,” Fitzpatrick said.

“If you get an annual physical, they would not think of not checking your cholesterol.”

The longer we allow HIV/AIDS to exist as a silent killer in our collective minds, the longer it will continue to ravage our communities. The first step toward untangling the stigmas associated with the virus and disease is demystifying the necessity for testing. But she knows it will be difficult. That morning she’d met with a man who broke down crying after he learned that he is HIV positive. She told me of another patient who went to multiple hospitals, unable to figure out what was wrong until an HIV test finally shed some light. As a senior citizen, no one had thought to check her status. And that’s the mind-set Fitzpatrick wants to change from the inside out.

“If I had my druthers, [testing] . . . would be so routine that nobody’s thinking about it,” she said.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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