by James Whitely -
SGN Staff Writer
For the past three months, UW TEST, an outreach HIV testing program, has been conducting free tests at Seattle Area Support Groups & Community Center (SASG, formerly Dunshee House) on Capitol Hill. The program is run by University of Washington medical students in collaboration with SASG and King County Public Health. In addition to receiving the necessary training to conduct HIV tests, UW TEST offers UW medical students a chance to become culturally competent by working directly with Seattle's LGBT community.
'We are all very excited about this collaboration,' said Olivia Lucero, president of UW TEST and a second-year med student at UW.
The goal of UW TEST is twofold. First, it aims to offer free HIV testing and counseling to the Seattle community and, second, to help first- and second-year medical students gain valuable experience interacting and consulting with patients, particularly LGBT patients.
After the three-month pilot period of testing, UW TEST, SASG, and King County Public Health met to discuss the successes and challenges of the project.
'Our intent was originally driven by a needs assessment we conducted on site at SASG, surveying clients on whether or not they needed access to testing and whether or not they would actually get tested at SASG,' Derek Blechinger, director of clinical services for UW TEST and a second-year medical student at UW, told SGN.
It was based on the results of the needs assessment that UW TEST was able to have a weekly presence at SASG for the past three months.
'It's been a long, slow warm-up to actually connect with folks who attend meetings at SASG, but it's starting to pick up,' said Blechinger. 'Our plans are to continue to find ways to connect with the community at SASG and better provide access to HIV testing for folks who haven't had a test in the past year, and especially for those who may find themselves needing a test more frequently than annually.'
Jake Ketchum, program manager at SASG, said this collaboration is something he's been looking forward to for a long time.
'It's crucial that we have the programs to help those who are suffering with HIV/AIDS,' Ketchum told the University of Washington's student paper, The Daily, as the program was beginning. 'But it also seemed necessary to offer testing just to increase awareness and also in a place where those who get bad news can find help.'
What makes UW TEST unique, however, is that it's really the first program of its kind, giving the next generation of doctors a chance, while still in grad school, to work directly with LGBT people.
'Often, doctors don't have [this kind] of dialogue with people from the LGBT community prior to coming out of school,' Joshua Wallace, executive director of SASG, told SGN.
'We are hoping to give med students practical experience in talking with people before and after the test,' said Blechinger. 'There's already some groundwork laid for med students. They know how to take patient histories, for example, but hands-on conversation is something we're hoping to provide.
'LGBT health is at the forefront of our attention in UW TEST and at the UW School of Medicine. Sexual and gender minorities experience numerous health disparities beyond HIV and STDs. Issues like mental health, addiction, youth homelessness, suicide, eating disorders, obesity, smoking, some cancers, and other health problems impact our community at greater rates due to various things such as stigma and minority stress. In some ways, medicine contributes to these disparities due to negative social attitudes, lack of appropriate physician education, and inadequate cultural competency and LGBT-specific curriculum. We have a duty to LGBT patients to foster the required attitudes, comfort, and knowledge in all future physicians to better serve what has historically been an underserved, stigmatized community.
'The past couple of years have seen a growing tide of support from the American Academy of Medical Colleges, the American Medical Association, the Institute of Medicine, and even the White House to better train physicians to serve LGBT patients. Teaching future physicians to be not only comfortable with LGBT patients but excited to have them is vital to improving the health of our LGBT communities,' Blechinger told SGN.
Currently, UW TEST has eight trained student HIV outreach testers, two of whom have received additional training by shadowing at the STD clinic and are now serving as HIV testing supervisors. It also has two student HIV epidemiologists, who are responsible for the anonymous data collected by UW TEST. Additionally, the whole program is run by UW students.
'Thus far, this experience has had incredible value for students,' Blechinger continued. 'At our recent meeting with Public Health, one of our student testers recounted her experiences getting trained in HIV testing and counseling, her time shadowing at the STD clinic, and the HIV tests she's both observed and conducted herself. One of the things she said that struck me the most is how important the skill sets she's learning are going to be to her as a future physician - the ability to candidly and non-judgmentally discuss sex and sexual health with patients, answer difficult questions about HIV, work with people who are working on their sobriety, and being with folks during what can be an incredibly transformative and difficult time.'
As the pilot period comes to a close, UW TEST seems to have been a success in many regards. According to Blechinger, plans to work with Gay City Health Project in addition to SASG are now in the works as well. Additionally, as the UW medical program is very highly regarded and very selective, it's quite possible that as UW TEST picks up and expands, other universities may begin similar programs.
In reference to the female student mentioned earlier, Blechinger highlighted the success of the program to SGN.
'She is a great example of what we are trying to do with UW TEST - to not only provide excellent, free rapid HIV testing services to the SASG community but also train future physicians in how to better incorporate sexual, chemical, and mental-health counseling into their future practices as physicians. I'd like to think we are slowly making an army of lean, mean, HIV-savvy, and LGBT-friendly physician machines! And for every future physician we train through UW TEST, they will carry their skills forward and impact tens of thousands of lives in their careers. It's an incredible feeling.'
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