Programming Connection

Peer HIV Testing 

PHS Community Services Society
Vancouver, British Columbia
2013

Introduction

There was a feeling that together we’re working on something.”

For six months in 2011, the PHS Community Services Society (PHS), in partnership with the Vancouver Seek and Treat for Optimal Prevention of HIV/AIDS (STOP) Project, delivered low-barrier peer HIV testing events that brought the discussion of HIV to the street and celebrated the capacity of the community to provide solutions to its own challenges.

The events offered free food and entertainment to everyone, and a $5 gift card to any person who spent a few minutes speaking to a trained educator about HIV or took an HIV test, and to all people living with HIV who connected with a nurse for a comprehensive health checkup. According to PHS co-executive director Liz Evans, this initiative demonstrated that a “non-professional environment, a more community-based, grassroots relationship-based culture can access people and can deliver healthcare in a way that other systems can’t.”  

Over the course of 26 events, PHS, working side by side with nurses from the STOP Outreach Team, reached almost 5,000 people with rapid HIV tests and information, diagnosed 11 people with HIV and reconnected 324 people to care who already knew their HIV-positive status. According to Shelley Bolton, the peer testing project manager, the project was also a great way to update people’s information about HIV. “Being able to see nearly 5,000 people […] in a very short time, it’s a very efficient way to properly educate people and, in turn, they will educate their friends.”

By engaging peers to provide services, residents had an opportunity to contribute to solving their own healthcare challenges with their own solutions by using the capacity that exists in the community. Peers were trained by nurses to offer the test; nurses were available at every event to provide testing and care for people with symptoms of acute HIV infection, other sexually transmitted infections, AIDS-defining illnesses and for people who preferred to be tested by a nurse.

This hybrid model of HIV testing challenged assumptions about how and where healthcare should be delivered and by whom. According to Liz Evans, participants “felt so much more comfortable being tested by peers than they would have if it had been someone else.”

By training peers to become testers, the Vancouver STOP Project and PHS didn’t just reduce barriers to healthcare for residents of the Downtown Eastside, they also contributed significantly to community pride and engagement. “I like that part the most,” says Mark Townsend, co-executive director of PHS. “The pride that people felt that they were being part [of something]. Whether they were getting tested or doing the testing, there was a feeling that together we’re working on something. We’re working on getting people treatment if they need it. We’re working on stamping out AIDS.”