Medical students educate, fight stigma at AIDS clinic
Visitors to the AIDS Outreach Clinic in Bozeman, Montana usually come alone, or sometimes with a friend. But always break stereotypes when they step through the door, according to Anthony Markuson, a second year medical student in the Montana WWAMI program under the UW School of Medicine.
“You kind of have that stereotype of a young gay man, but that’s simply not true anymore, if it ever was true,” said Markuson. “You see people in their middle years. Behaviors are not limited to a specific age group.”
Although the AIDS Outreach Clinic has been located in a nondescript office building for about seven years, the Saturday availability was the brainchild of Markuson, who wanted to extend the hours of the clinic and provide an opportunity for WWAMI students like him to engage in patient interaction and become experts on the rapid testing program for HIV.
The Saturday clinic began in February and ran through May. It will begin again with a new group of students in the fall.
“Students get a great benefit from providing this service because they develop skills in advanced sexual and social history taking,” said Kelsen Caldwell, service learning manager for the UW School of Medicine. “Society at large often makes us feel pretty uncomfortable talking openly about sexual practices, drug use and other behaviors that might put a person at a higher risk for contracting HIV.”
This taboo can also reach into the patient-provider relationship, Caldwell noted. That is why it is important for medical school students to practice and develop the skill to create an open and welcoming environment for difficult conversations. This skill is especially needed where the community may be more reluctant to ask for help.
The HIV contraction rate is a little under 1 percent nationally, meaning in Montana, with a population of 1 million, there are about 1,000 people with HIV.
“Many of the doctors here won’t do the HIV test, believing that this is not much of a risk here,” said Greg Smith, past director of the AIDS Outreach program. “We are trying to change that.”
The WWAMI students offering the rapid testing program on Saturdays has been “phenomenal,” Smith added. Under the rapid testing program, a client can receive a result on HIV within 20 minutes. The service is free.
The community awareness of the clinic and acceptance of it has grown over the years, Smith said. He estimated that the annual community fundraiser more than doubled its total earnings this year.
Still, patients with HIV face stigma, especially the misconception that if they have HIV, they have AIDS.
People may not understand that they can live with HIV through treatment—but that is what the WWAMI team is there to do, Markuson said.
“There is a lot of stress that surrounds the unknown,” he said. “We need to have a conversation with that individual, and support them in that moment, no matter what the result.”