New research study aims to make sexual health testing more accessible in Alberta

Community pharmacies will provide free, quick and confidential testing for HIV, hepatitis C and syphilis.

EDMONTON - A new research study called APPROACH 2.0 has launched in Alberta, providing Albertans with free, quick, and confidential testing for HIV, hepatitis C, and syphilis at participating community pharmacies. The study aims to help fill the gap in sexual health care services and increase access to care.

Christine Hughes, interim dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and the Alberta lead for APPROACH 2.0, explains that many people are unaware that they have these infections, which prevents them from getting effective treatment. 

"If you're diagnosed early and get on treatment for HIV, for example, your overall trajectory in terms of your own personal health is much better. And, in the case of hepatitis C and syphilis, we have curative treatments that are available," says Hughes, adding that by improving personal health and better access to testing, public health could also benefit.

Pharmacies can provide a more appealing alternative for many who have avoided sexual health testing due to stigma, or negative experiences in health-care settings, according to Dylan Moulton, a clinical pharmacist and pharmacy manager at Medi-Drugs Millcreek, one of the pharmacies participating in the study.

“Pharmacists are absolutely removing barriers to health-care access, especially for equity-seeking groups who don’t always feel comfortable accessing traditional health-care spaces that don’t feel safe to them,” Moulton says. 

The study follows the footsteps of the APPROACH pilot study, in which 123 rapid point-of-care tests for HIV were performed over six months in Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta. According to Hughes, the pilot study was very well received from the clients being tested, however many were seeking testing for additional infections beyond HIV, which is one of the main reasons the latest study expanded the options available for testing to include hepatitis C and syphilis.

APPROACH 2.0 will run for one year, with 17 pharmacists in eight pharmacies participating. Participating pharmacists receive stigma awareness training to provide care inclusively and in a trauma-informed way, ensuring that patients feel comfortable sharing their concerns. They also undergo in-person training, covering additional topics such as how to navigate potentially sensitive conversations with patients and how to take next steps when a patient tests positive for an infection.

The participating pharmacies are offering two types of point-of-care tests to people who wish to be screened. The rapid fingerstick test can screen for either HIV or hepatitis C and provides results within minutes. The dried blood spot test takes about two to four weeks to obtain results but can screen for all three infections at once. Both tests require just a few drops of blood, obtained from a finger prick, and can be conducted in a private room at the pharmacy. Following testing, pharmacists will connect individuals with health-care professionals who can assist them in navigating the next stage of their care.

The study seeks to determine how efficiently and effectively pharmacists can reach people and fill that gap in care at the community pharmacy level. 

“Sexual health is a private matter for a lot of people,” says Moulton. “Pharmacists are often seen as trustworthy health-care professionals that people feel comfortable sharing their concerns with.”

The full story can be seen here. To arrange an interview with Christine Hughes or Dylan Moulton, please contact:

Ross Neitz | U of A media strategist | | 780-297-8354