In the UK, approximately 4,200 men who have sex with men (MSM) are living with HIV but remain undiagnosed. Maximising the number of high-risk people testing for HIV is key to ensuring prompt treatment and preventing onward infection. This study assessed how different HIV test characteristics affect the choice of testing option, including remote testing (HIV self-testing or HIV self-sampling), in the UK, a country with universal access to healthcare.
Methods and findings
Between 3 April and 11 May 2017, a cross-sectional online-questionnaire-based discrete choice experiment (DCE) was conducted in which respondents who expressed an interest in online material used by MSM were asked to imagine that they were at risk of HIV infection and to choose between different hypothetical HIV testing options, including the option not to test. A variety of different testing options with different defining characteristics were described so that the independent preference for each characteristic could be valued. The characteristics included where each test is taken, the sampling method, how the test is obtained, whether infections other than HIV are tested for, test accuracy, the cost of the test, the infection window period, and how long it takes to receive the test result. Participants were recruited and completed the instrument online, in order to include those not currently engaged with healthcare services. The main analysis was conducted using a latent class model (LCM), with results displayed as odds ratios (ORs) and probabilities. The ORs indicate the strength of preference for one characteristic relative to another (base) characteristic. In total, 620 respondents answered the DCE questions. Most respondents reported that they were white (93%) and were either gay or bisexual (99%). The LCM showed that there were 2 classes within the respondent sample that appeared to have different preferences for the testing options. The first group, which was likely to contain 86% of respondents, had a strong preference for face-to-face tests by healthcare professionals (HCPs) compared to remote testing (OR 6.4; 95% CI 5.6, 7.4) and viewed not testing as less preferable than remote testing (OR 0.10; 95% CI 0.09, 0.11). In the second group, which was likely to include 14% of participants, not testing was viewed as less desirable than remote testing (OR 0.56; 95% CI 0.53, 0.59) as were tests by HCPs compared to remote testing (OR 0.23; 95% CI 0.15, 0.36). In both classes, free remote tests instead of each test costing £30 was the test characteristic with the largest impact on the choice of testing option. Participants in the second group were more likely to have never previously tested and to be non-white than participants in the first group. The main study limitations were that the sample was recruited solely via social media, the study advert was viewed only by people expressing an interest in online material used by MSM, and the choices in the experiment were hypothetical rather than observed in the real world.
Our results suggest that preferences in the context we examined are broadly dichotomous. One group, containing the majority of MSM, appears comfortable testing for HIV but prefers face-to-face testing by HCPs rather than remote testing. The other group is much smaller, but contains MSM who are more likely to be at high infection risk. For these people, the availability of remote testing has the potential to significantly increase net testing rates, particularly if provided for free.