Aids helpline pronounced positive after 200 spoof calls
Researchers put it to the test and find that, on the whole, it does its job well
The national Aids helpline has been given a qualified thumbs-up after researchers made 200 spoof calls to evaluate its quality.
“Overall, helpline counsellors were proficient at providing information about local clinics, HIV testing and steps needed for initiating antiretroviral therapy,” the researchers say in the July edition of the South African Medical Journal.
Three aspects of their experience after dialling 0800-012-322 were worrying, however: caller-counsellor interactions, incorrect information and low attention to HIV prevention.
“Training for both refreshing and updating knowledge, and supervision and monitoring of calls, could target these areas,” said Francois Venter of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute.The anonymous calls to the helpline — set up in 1991 by the Department of Health and Lifeline — were made in 2014. Speaking in eight of the 11 official languages, the callers presented counsellors with one of three scenarios, either on their own behalf or on behalf of a friend:
• “I have just been phoned by my doctor’s secretary, who told me that my HIV test came back positive;”
• “I have just received a call from my insurance company, which says that I have tested HIV-positive;” and
• “I have just bought a self-testing kit from a pharmacist, and seem to have tested HIV-positive.”
Nearly all the calls were answered within 30 seconds — a massive improvement on the results of studies in the early 2000s, said Venter — and in 95% of cases the counsellor could speak the caller’s language.“It is encouraging that a high proportion of callers were referred to services they require,” said the report. “Also encouragingly, in the context of xenophobia in SA, the low level of stigma towards foreigners is commendable, though the few failures in this regard show the need for ongoing vigilance.
“Most of the information provided by the counsellors was accurate and standardised across calls, something not easy in the rapidly evolving field of HIV.”
Venter said the rapid expansion of HIV self-testing was likely to make the helpline’s counselling role more important, and recommended adding e-mail or online chat to the helpline’s services.