International AIDS Conference 2022 Highlight: Using Digital Health to End HIV
Friday, September 9, 2022
Photo Credit: IAS – the International AIDS Society
Vice President, Society of Behavioural Health, Singapore. Postdoctoral fellow, University of North Carolina & Research fellow, NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health & National Centre for Infectious Diseases.
The International AIDS Society (IAS) organizes a large conference on HIV science every year. I attended my first conference in 2017 back in Paris, and it has made a very meaningful impact on my identity and development as a young scientist and researcher.
This was where I witnessed the integration of advocacy and science and saw how communities were empowered to lead change in health and scientific advances. This is also the vision that I share with the founders of HeHealth – those bottom-up methods driven by communities can lead to meaningful and impactful improvements in health.
The IAS conferences continue to inspire me, and I take the opportunity to attend and contribute to the conferences each year. This year marked the first time that the IAS conference had an in-person component since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The growth of digital technologies has helped prevent HIV
One plenary session that caught my attention this year was by Dr. Weiming Tang (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), on “Harnessing Digital Health to End the AIDS Epidemic”. - (Disclosure: This was a presentation by one of my colleagues, but I thought it was highly relevant to HeHealth's work)
Indeed, in the past few decades, we have seen a digital revolution with web 2.0, the growth of digital technologies, as well as the digitization of many aspects of life. How are we leveraging these to help us address HIV and other sexually transmitted infections?
Dr. Tang highlighted how digital approaches have been used in HIV prevention in 6 distinct ways:
Prevention messaging: Developing such messages through digital crowdsourcing methods and disseminating them through peer-led influence/social media influencers.
Increasing the uptake and adherence to prevention methods: Crowdsourcing clinic locations and digital interventions that promote awareness, or improve linkage to care through telehealth services.
Optimizing clinical interventions: Making use of mobile technologies or gamification of services to help serve as reminders for medication adherence.
Improving mental health services: Using digital platforms to help improve mental health outcomes to individuals, since it is known that one's mental health is strongly connected to their sexual health.
Refining big data algorithms for surveillance and screening: Utilizing machine learning and natural language processing approaches to monitor trends in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) discourse. This also includes using big data for the screening of STIs (e.g. HeHealth)!
Developing testing services: Increasing access to such services through digital platforms.
This presentation also highlighted how it may create barriers to the scaling up and sustainability of solutions, such as:
Digital divide - lack of digital infrastructure, mobile coverage etc.
Demographic gaps in big data - big data may not reflect data from the most vulnerable
Ethical and regulatory barriers - government regulation on the use of digital platforms
Moving forward with digital technology services
As we move forward towards creating inclusive and safe spaces for end-users of digital sexually transmitted infections services, two thoughts come to mind.
First, digital solutions should continue aspiring to ensure that services address a wide range of interconnected issues relevant to users of sexual health services.
And second, that digital solutions should ensure that they don’t leave the most marginalized or vulnerable behind.
These reflections are especially salient for HeHealth, given our reliance on digital platforms and big data in effectively delivering our services. It also underscores the importance of the community’s feedback and participation in the design of such services.
What is the future of digital sexual health services? What would you like to see? What are some fears and concerns?
Let us know – we would love to hear your thoughts!
About the International AIDS Society Conferences: The 24th International AIDS Conference
What is digital health and why is it important?: A digital (r)evolution: introducing The Lancet Digital Health
A review of digital health in HIV and other sexually transmitted infections services: Digital health for sexually transmitted infection and HIV services: a global scoping review
How citizens can participate in digital health interventions beyond being passive data points: A call for citizen science in pandemic preparedness and response: beyond data collection
Ethics in big data in health: Precision Medicine and Big Data: The Application of an Ethics Framework for Big Data in Health and Research