Study shows nurses can safely and effectively manage antiretroviral treatment

Offers a crucial alternative to doctor monitoring in light of shortage of health care workers around the world.

Study shows nurses can safely and effectively manage antiretroviral treatment click to enlarge Nurse trainees listen to morning education at Bwaila antenatal clinic, Lilongwe, Malawi

The monitoring of antiretroviral therapy (ART) by trained nurses in primary health care seems to be as similarly safe and effective as doctor-monitored care, according to an article published in this week’s edition of The Lancet. The results of this randomized trial add to the observational evidence of successful “task-shifting” in HIV care that could help ease the critical shortage of health care workers while expanding access to ART for the millions in urgent need of treatment.

A worldwide shortage of 4.3 million health care workers means that many people do not have access to the HIV therapy they need. In order to meet universal access targets by 2010, WHO proposed “task-shifting” from doctors to other lower level health-care workers, enabling nurses and community workers to deliver ART, so that more patients might be treated.

South Africa has the world’s largest national ART program but just 17.4 medical practitioners per 100 000 people. To tackle this shortage, it plans large-scale task shifting—increasingly using nurses for HIV care and the monitoring of ART. However, little research has been done to investigate if this approach is safe and effective.

To provide more evidence, the Comprehensive International Program for Research in AIDS in South Africa (CIPRA-SA) study team, supported by the South African National Department of Health and the National Institute for Health (USA), compared the outcomes of nurse versus doctor management of doctor-initiated ART care* for HIV patients in two South-African primary care clinics. Between 2005 and 2007, 812 HIV patients were randomly assigned to nurse-managed ART care (408) or doctor-managed ART care (404). The composite endpoint was defined as failure of the treatment strategy to maintain patients on ART and measured using death rate, viral failure, treatment-limiting toxic effects, and whether patients attended scheduled visits.

Overall, 192 patients (48%) experienced treatment failure in the nurse group and 179 (44%) in the doctor group.

After 2 years, deaths (10 vs 11), viral failure (44 vs 39), toxicity failures (68 vs 66), and program loses (70 vs 63) were found to be similar between the nurse and doctor groups.

The findings, say the authors: “Lend support to the strategy of task shifting, and suggest that HIV management by nurses can be safe and effective, probably even for those starting therapy with advanced HIV infection.”

However, they point out that “widespread task shifting will need increased training, a redefinition of scope of practice for nurses, and a clinical support structure.”

The CIPRA-SA project is a collaboration between the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa), University of Cape Town (South Africa), National Health Laboratory Services (South Africa), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Boston University.

Charles M. van der Horst, MD, professor of medicine in the UNC School of Medicine, is an investigator on the study and one of authors of the article.

The study was funded by the National Institute for Health (USA) and supported by the South African National Department of Health which provided the necessary antiretroviral therapy for the study.

In an accompanying comment, Mark Boyd from St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, Australia writes, “There have been many calls for clinical and operational research to help to better inform policy and guidelines for routine HIV care. In view of the enormous amount of resources ploughed into the effort to achieve universal access to HIV care, including antiretroviral therapy, it is marvellous to see the results of a practical and innovative study which helps propel the field forward and improves our collective confidence that despite all the obstacles we can succeed.”

 Click here to see the original post on the UNC Global Health website.

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