For normative beliefs about getting tested for HIV, participants cited a variety of referent groups that would approve their getting tested, such as health care providers (HCPs), friends, and family. Most said no important referents would disapprove of their getting tested, although some said that some of their friends or partners might disapprove because they would be afraid of a possible positive test result.
Participants discussed many positive control beliefs, that is, beliefs about things that would facilitate the ability to be tested for HIV. Many of the men mentioned having a support system such as a friend to go with you to be tested. These men felt that the notion of getting tested was daunting and that having a friend accompany them would help ease their nerves and make them feel supported. Several mentioned destigmatization of HIV in the media and disassociation of HIV from race, gender, and class would be a facilitating factor and further added that requiring that testing be part of regular HCP visits or required if a person reported having unprotected sex would be a good destigmatization strategy. It is important that, many men reported that having a good relationship with HCP and having trust in their HCP would be key in increasing the likelihood of being tested. Lastly, some discussed facilitators such as easy access to mobile testing and treatment, ensuring the test's confidentiality, and having financial incentives for testing (e.g., gift cards). Negative control beliefs or beliefs about factors perceived to inhibit the ability to be tested focused on their fear of a positive test result and subsequent discriminations from other people, housing, or employment. Participants mentioned actual barriers in terms of lack of psychosocial support, lack of easy access to testing, and lack of insurance.
When asked about their experiences being tested, a few reported that they felt afraid and that “waiting for the results is scary.” Waiting triggered a lot of emotions including “anxiety, worry, and embarrassment.” Some men reported unsafe sexual practices as the reason to be tested; others reported regular testing as a part of their routine care regimen. A few men reported having illnesses, wanting to prevent getting sick, and having friends who were getting sick as the reason for getting tested. One man, however, reported being tested without his consent while in prison in 1995.
Men who said they were living with HIV were asked additional questions about their experiences seeking health care after initial diagnosis. Because experiences seeking care many years ago were less relevant to today's health care environment, we focused on reporting responses from 11 participants who had been diagnosed within the past 10 years. Some participants said that they had been tested at community-based organizations and subsequently referred by case managers to a provider. These men reported being informed about resources, including organizations that could help with coping and managing care.
The positive behavioral beliefs about receiving HIV care focused on the benefits of care for managing the illness and keeping one healthy. Participants valued being educated about the disease and keeping track of their CD4+ T-cell counts and viral loads. Especially, some mentioned by actively seeking care, they could secure advice and support from both HCP and their support networks, including family and friends. Most of the negative behavioral beliefs about receiving HIV care revolved around the men's perceptions of HCP. Most concerns were about having a HCP whom they did not trust or felt uncomfortable to communicate with. Other negative consequences of engaging in HIV care included long waits for an appointment, being stuck with needles, and encountering familiar people in the care setting who did not know their serostatus.
The referents who would approve of the men seeking HIV care included their support networks such as friends, particularly friends who were PLWH, family members, and HCP. All said no important referents would disapprove of their getting care.
Positive control beliefs about the things that would facilitate the ability to seek care focused on having a supportive nonjudgmental HCP whom they could trust and communicate with. The negative control beliefs about things that would inhibit the ability to see a HCP for HIV care included fear of the unknown, lack of transportation, and lack of nearby HIV care facilities.
We also asked participants about their experiences in HIV care, beginning with the initial visit. Some men focused on their internal feelings and emotions about the visit. One reported negative feelings, such as being uncomfortable with the many personal questions about his sex life. A few other men reported feeling scared with one man saying that he “had a nervous breakdown and was still in a tender state” during his first visit. He explained his feelings in terms of his recent diagnosis and the effect that his diagnosis and subsequent initial health care visit had had on his emotional state. Other men with earlier diagnoses focused on outside factors such as misinformation received from the health care team and the health care community's lack of knowledge about treatment options. The men's responses were not all negative, however. One man reported that, although he was scared at first, his HCP consoled him, assuring him that he could get better, and another man reported that he felt at ease once rapport was established with his HCP. Another participant indicated that his first visit was great: that he felt reassured, that the visit was empowering and positive, and that it took away his stress.
When asked how regularly they had been going to the HCP for HIV care, 15 men (83%) said every 3 months, 2 (11%) said every month, and 1 (6%) said every week. The men mentioned several things that could help them keep up with their HIV care appointments, including a planner book, understanding the importance of staying on medication, making the next appointment while at the clinic, reading about treatment for HIV, receiving reminder phone calls, having transportation such as a pick-up service, posting reminders in a calendar, reminder cards, and living near the provider. The things that made it hard to keep HIV care appointments included feeling sick and unmotivated, distance, lack of transportation, conflict with work or school hours, and expensive co-payments.
Adherence and Viral Suppression
Positive behavioral beliefs about the consequences of taking ART as prescribed focused on the positive health effects, such as keeping the viral load undetectable, feeling and looking better, and protecting other people. Negative behavioral beliefs revolved around side effects such as fatigue and weight gain and interferences with their alcohol consumption and their social life.
The referents approving of their taking ART as prescribed included their HCP and supportive network members such as family and friends. Those who would disapprove included family members who could not accept the fact that they were taking HIV medications and “people who do not care about me.”
Positive control beliefs about things that would facilitate the ability to take ART as prescribed included specific things that could make medication adherence easier. Most mentioned setting reminders and having pills and water available. Some also mentioned having a support group of people who were also taking ART. Negative control beliefs about things that would inhibit taking ART as prescribed included visiting or socializing with people to whom they had not disclosed their HIV status, spending nights out partying or traveling, forgetting to take the dose, and forgetting to refill the prescription.
When asked whether they sometimes forgot to take their medication, 5 men (31%) said yes. The reasons included a variety of scenarios, such as simply being too busy, leaving the medication at home while spending the night out, and having to take the medication with food but not eating at the same time every day.
Influence of Age
Finally, to extract insight from different age group experiences to inform more targeted interventions, we took an exploratory analysis to compare the responses from participants aged 50 years and older and those younger than 50 years. We found both groups mentioned all types of behavioral beliefs listed in Table 1, but there are two subtle differences. First, participants aged 50 years and older were more likely to mention stigma in the Black community about HIV as a barrier for testing and seeking care. Second, older participants were less likely to discuss the bad things about adhering to medication, as one participant mentioned he got used to the side effects. However, they also mentioned simply forgetting to take the medication was a barrier for adherence, whereas younger participants did not mention this problem. The difference between those who had known their HIV status for many years and those who were diagnosed within the past 10 years was that a few participants with diagnoses from long ago mentioned the lack of knowledge from HCP and the health care team.
The analysis of the data from our study resulted in several overarching themes regarding HIV care–related behaviors among African American MSM: (a) stigma, (b) concerns about HCP, (c) social support, and (d) logistical issues. The themes were evident in participant responses about seeking HIV testing, seeking care, and adhering to ART regimens, often regarding both behavioral beliefs and control beliefs. The issue of stigma was perhaps the most formidable barrier to progress on the HIV care continuum. When asked about HIV testing, participants said that destigmatizating HIV would help them seek testing. Because HIV is a stigmatized disease, the participants were afraid about possible breaches of confidentiality, afraid that others might find out. This was seen as a possible negative consequence of seeking testing. It was also a potential negative consequence of seeking care and of taking ART. People they knew and to whom they had not disclosed might observe them in the health care setting or taking medications and surmise that they were living with HIV, potentially leading to ostracism and discrimination. HIV stigma is particularly destructive because it prevents people from disclosing their status, which in turn undercuts their ability to enlist support to engage in HIV care–related behaviors. Additionally, our data suggest that participants who were 50 years or older considered stigma to a greater extent than younger participants in thinking about HIV care–related behaviors.
Another overarching theme concerned HCP. Having a good relationship with HCP was seen as motivating participants to seek HIV testing, but concerns about HCP were most evident in seeking care. Participants expressed negative outcome expectancies regarding seeking care, including encountering providers who were poor communicators, untrustworthy, judgmental, and ill-informed about HIV.
A third theme involved social support as a facilitator of engagement in the HIV care continuum. Being accompanied by a friend was seen as facilitating HIV testing. Friends, including those who were PLWH and sexual partners, were seen as sources of normative support, approving participant participation in all three HIV care–related behaviors. In addition, support groups were also mentioned as sources of normative support for seeking care and adhering to ART regimens, where a support group of people who were also taking ART was seen as helping participants adhere.
The final major theme concerned logistical issues or practical barriers to HIV care, including concerns about accessible facilities for HIV testing, transportation, costs, and insurance coverage for HIV care. Logistical issues such as not having medications available when they should be taken, not having water with which to take them, and forgetting to take them were seen as reducing participant likelihood of taking ART as prescribed. Especially for older participants, forgetting to take their medications was more frequently mentioned than by their younger counterparts.
Our confidence in these four themes was increased by the similarities in findings across questions designed to elicit different types of behavioral, normative, and control beliefs regarding HIV testing, care seeking, and ART adherence. Moreover, many of our themes dovetailed with those of other studies about the HIV care continuum, particularly fear of learning one has HIV (Adam, de Wit, Bourne, Know, & Purchas, 2014; Lauby, Bond, Eroglu, & Batson, 2006; Nel, Yi, Sandfort, & Rich, 2013); stigma (Adam et al., 2014; Kalichman et al., 2009; Lauby et al., 2006); needles (Lauby et al., 2006); concern about breaches of privacy (Marks, Gardner, Craw, & Crepaz, 2010); the importance of good relationships with HCP and trust in health care (Bogart, Wagner, Galvan, & Banks, 2010); social support (Jemmott, Jemmott, O'Leary, Icard, & Rutledge, n.d.; Lauby et al., 2012); and competing life issues, such as socializing, partying, and consuming alcohol, presenting challenges to medication adherence (Kalichman et al., 2013).
Trustworthiness and Limitations
Hallmarks of trustworthiness in qualitative research findings include assessments of credibility, transferability, and confirmability. We used several strategies to maximize credibility and widen our own understanding of the phenomena, including (a) searching our data for rival conclusions and negative cases, (b) using multiple coders and discussing themes within a larger group of researchers/co-authors from the parent study, and (c) comparing emergent themes to existing theory (e.g., Theory of Planned Behavior, Social Cognitive Theory) and perspectives (e.g., stigma, social support). Regarding transferability, our description of themes for these African American MSM study participants was similar to those presented in studies of HIV stigma and health services seeking in other MSM populations (Christopoulos et al., 2013; Logie et al., 2017; Wei et al., 2014).
Although we did not audio record participants and could not use direct quotes from them, our interviewers took detailed notes to enhance confirmability of findings being centered in the experiences of the participants. We strove to establish rapport with the participants and stressed the value of honest and frank responses to the development of future HIV care interventions. Interview notes were coded independently, discussed by two experienced coders for agreement, and then presented to the researchers/co-authors to increase neutrality and decrease unintended personal bias of the coders.
The sample consisted of African American men residing in an urban area in the northeastern United States who had previously participated in an intervention trial. The original trial had 595 participants. For our qualitative study, the recruiter did not systematically track the contact records with these participants. One limitation was that we did not have statistics to compare our participants to the original pool of participants or other African American MSM. Another limitation was that we did not have repeated contact with the participants to assess credibility within the population. Additional contacts may have increased depth and afforded a review of our themes through member checking, as may have follow-up focus groups. However, the rich experience of the research team and familiarity with the population from other studies and comparisons with other published studies reduces this concern. Lastly, all our interviewers were female. One possibility is that if we had trained African American MSM as interviewers, the interviewees might have identified more with the interviewers and revealed more information.
Notwithstanding these limitations, our findings have implications for developing interventions centered on the HIV care continuum. Our findings support the use of multilevel interventions targeting different factors, including personal contacts, HCP, and community members. Interventions should primarily focus on addressing the stigma of HIV and homophobia to reduce barriers to HIV testing and care. It is important that, interventions for African American MSM aged 50 years and older devote more resources to address and reduce perceived HIV-related stigma within their social groups.
Interventions targeting individuals could employ activities specifically designed to buttress beliefs about the positive consequences of HIV testing, seeking HIV care, and adhering to ART regimens, while weakening beliefs about the negative consequences of these behaviors. Such interventions could also build self-efficacy to surmount barriers to HIV testing, care seeking, and ART adherence by using strategies such as skills building (Bandura, 1986; El-Bassel et al., 2010; Garofalo et al., 2016; Hersch et al., 2013; Kalichman et al., 2016), including role-playing and vicarious reward from testimonials of African American MSM living with HIV who have experienced positive consequences from testing and engaging in HIV care behaviors. For older African American MSM, interventions could consider providing additional tools such as automatic reminders to increase medication adherence.
Interventions with HCP aimed at increasing HIV testing and care could also focus on creating an environment that African American MSM would perceive as welcoming and building more positive provider–patient relationships. Existing social groups or specially created groups of PLWH could be employed in interventions aimed at encouraging engagement in HIV care and ART adherence. Similarly, dyadic interventions involving the participant and his partner could be employed to provide support for engaging in HIV care behaviors (Bouris et al., 2017; El-Bassel et al., 2011; 2010).
African American MSM have high rates of HIV and low rates of engagement in the HIV care continuum, but few existing interventions target engagement in the HIV care continuum specifically for African American MSM. We provide information that can be used to address this important gap in the literature. Analysis of our data resulted in four cross-cutting themes (stigma, concerns about HCP, social support, and logistical issues) that interventions to encourage engagement in the HIV care continuum by African American MSM might address. Consistent with our theoretical framework, the Theory of Planned Behavior, research using quantitative methods should explore the predictive power of these themes in larger, more diverse samples of African American MSM. Research along these lines would support the development of theory-based, culturally appropriate interventions to help reduce disparities in HIV care affecting African American MSM.
The authors report no real or perceived vested interests related to this article that could be construed as a conflict of interest.
- Multilevel interventions should primarily focus on addressing HIV-related stigma and homophobia to reduce barriers to HIV testing and care.
- Interventions with HCPs should focus on creating an environment that African American MSM perceive as welcoming and building more positive provider–patient relationships.
- Interventions for older African American MSM should devote resources to reduce perceived HIV-related stigma and provide reminder tools to increase medication adherence.
This study was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (R01 MH079736: PI: John B. Jemmott, III). The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not represent official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Keywords:© 2019 Association of Nurses in AIDS Care
African American men; HIV care continuum; men who have sex with men; qualitative interviews; stigma; Theory of Planned Behavior