The AIDS Divide


This is the second in a two-part series. Part 1 appeared in the July issue, p. 29.

While the HIV/AIDS epidemic rages worldwide—an estimated 40 million people have the virus—the lifespan for many HIV-positive patients in the U.S. continues to improve.

Patients on highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) live long enough to develop common age-related illnesses. Those without sufficient resources and/or social supports continue to present with AIDS-defining syndromes seen at the beginning of the epidemic. Hospitalists must face these different populations of HIV/AIDS patients and their unique challenges.

In the second part of our series, we address:

  • The ramifications for hospitalists of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) revised HIV testing guidelines;
  • Challenges specific to managing children with HIV; and
  • Ways hospitalists can make a difference with HIV patients through social services collaboration, education, and counseling.

Testing Guidelines Shift

On Sept. 22, 2006, the CDC issued revised recommendations for HIV testing of adults, adolescents, and pregnant women in healthcare settings.1 Testing had previously been recommended only for high-risk individuals, such as injection drug users or those with multiple sex partners. The new recommendations advise testing all individuals 13 through 64 in all healthcare settings. In its rationale for extended testing, the CDC notes that of the 1 million to 1.2 million people thought to be living with HIV in the United States, nearly 25% are unaware of their infected status. Expansion of testing, the CDC argues, would mean earlier access to life-extending treatments and reduced transmission risk.

Expanded testing is a good idea, says Theresa Barton, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Dr. Barton is also a pediatric hospitalist and director of the AIDS Related Medical Services (ARM) Clinic at UT.

“According to the CDC, a large number of newly diagnosed HIV patients have no risk factor at all [other than sexual contact with a partner],” Dr. Barton says. “Many people, particularly heterosexuals, do not perceive having sex as a risk factor. That’s certainly the case for women who are pregnant. They report they have no risk factor when you know they have a risk factor by default because they’re pregnant.”

Testing should be offered to everyone in the hospital, agrees George Mathew, MD, a hospitalist with infectious disease training at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, and instructor of medicine at Emory University Medical School. However, testing everyone who comes to the hospital may be impractical for two reasons, he believes:

  • Hospitalists feel time constraints with other components of diagnosing and admitting patients; and
  • Hospitalists will not be impelled to offer patients routine HIV testing unless it is mandated by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) as a core measure.

“Hospitalists will need help [from their institutions] in the introduction of this recommendation, maybe as an inclusion on a general admission form or as a prompt during computerized physician order entry (CPOE),” Dr. Mathew says.

Until universal testing of all inpatients is instituted, it is still advisable for hospitalists to include HIV testing in the diagnostic workup. Neil Winawer, MD, director of the hospitalist program at Grady Memorial, one of Emory University’s affiliated hospitals in Atlanta, advises that hospitalists “should always keep the diagnosis of HIV and AIDS on their radar screen in this day and age. There can be certain things in a patient’s profile that trigger you to think about testing for HIV, such as lymphopenia, recurrent infections, subtle evidence of weight loss, or alopecia.”

Theresa Barton, MD

Hospitalists should also heed how they introduce the need for the test. “To be honest, I think in many ways we have made the testing process too scary,” says Dr. Barton. She believes patients and their families may become unduly alarmed because of the emphasis on informed consent, as well as the secrecy of results. Her approach with families in the hospital or at the clinic is to tell parents she wants to do an HIV test to “make sure that every stone is uncovered” in making a diagnosis. “We should all do our best to explain to families what our plan is or what kind of testing we will be doing, whether it’s an HIV test or not,” she says.

Dr. Barton also cautions pediatric hospitalist colleagues to be sensitive to parents’ wishes when a diagnostic work-up includes a CD4 count or HIV test. If the child has been seen in an outpatient setting, it is possible the parents have not yet told their child that he or she is HIV-infected. “Try to be cognizant of the parents’ involvement and wishes,” she advises. “To have a perfect stranger [the hospitalist] tell you that you’re HIV-infected can be shocking.”

George Mathew, MD

HIV in Children

The numbers of children with HIV in the United States tend to be small in comparison with the world’s estimated 2.5 million children under 15 living with the virus. From the start of the epidemic until 2002, 9,300 U.S. children under 13 had been reported to the CDC as living with HIV/AIDS. The majority of those children acquired the virus from their mothers before or during birth or through breast-feeding.

Most cases of HIV infection in infants are diagnosed at birth, according to Dr. Barton. With the advent of AZT (zidovudine) and HAART, only 92 new cases of pediatric AIDS were reported in 2002. The patterns of pediatric HIV/AIDS rates parallel those in adult groups: rates are higher among minority and economically disadvantaged inner-city populations.2

As with adult HIV populations, healthy children with HIV do not often present in the hospital setting because their condition is well controlled. However, Dr. Barton is seeing teenagers with acute retroviral syndrome—which occurs in those recently infected—and immigrant children with HIV-related diseases. The latter group, she says, do not have access to ongoing outpatient care, and their disease has gone undiagnosed until it brings them to the hospital.

The incidence of opportunistic infections differs in children, where pneumoncystis pneumonia (PCP) and cytomegalovirus (CMV) are primary infections. In adults these diseases usually result from the reactivation of latent infections. Lymphocytic interstitial pneumonitis is more common in children than in adults. Severe candidiasis, a yeast infection, can cause constant diaper rash or manifest as oral thrush.

Dr. Barton emphasizes that pediatric hospitalists should keep a low threshold for thinking about HIV when diagnosing children. Possible reasons to test for HIV include:

  • Failure to thrive;
  • Delayed developmental milestones, such as crawling, walking, and talking;
  • Severe presentation of common illnesses, such as diarrhea;
  • Chronic appearance of common illnesses, such as colds; and
  • Seizures, fever, dehydration, and pneumonia.

Finding appropriate drug regimens for children with HIV can be even more of a challenge than for adult HIV patients. Children with HIV are treated with HAART. Many drugs approved for adults are not available in liquid form for younger children. Even if children can swallow pills, the dose may be too high for them. HAART in the pediatric setting also carries risks of multiple toxicities and drug resistance.

Drug interactions become a factor when, as is common, children develop seizures, says Dr. Barton. “It’s sometimes difficult to find drugs that don’t have a lot of interactions, so obtaining the advice of the pharmacist is really crucial,” she says.

Adolescents are a particularly troublesome subset of growing HIV cases. “By nature of their being adolescents, they do not routinely access care,” notes Dr. Barton. “There is a long window of time—often many years—before a patient becomes symptomatic, so they may not present until they are severely ill.”

Neil Winawer, MD

Inpatient Management

If and how hospitalists interact with HIV/AIDS patients depends on their institution’s resources, catchment area, and formal affiliations with teaching hospitals. Tomas Villanueva, DO, is a hospitalist at Baptist Hospital of Miami, a 650-bed not-for-profit hospital in South Florida.

“I’m one of those very spoiled hospitalists because I have everything and everybody available to me,” he says. “I have the good fortune to work with infectious disease doctors and with clinical pharmacologists.” Access to these consultants, he says, helps with admitting HIV patients taking antiretrovirals, especially when withdrawing oral nutrition is indicated.

“Atlanta has a large HIV-positive population,” notes Dr. Mathew. As in many U.S. urban centers, patients in Atlanta often present with opportunistic infections and end-stage AIDS. Dr. Mathew advises hospitalists to consult with the infectious disease specialist when HIV/AIDS patients are admitted. “You call the nephrologist when you have an end-stage renal disease patient, so you should call the ID [infectious disease] specialist when you have an HIV patient,” he says. “There are multiple presentations of antiretroviral toxicities, which most hospitalists do not know how to handle. Yet it is also not advisable to take them off their HAART presumptuously.” Dr. Mathew also observes that many HIV patients consider ID specialists their primary care providers, so it is important to respect that bond while patients are in the hospital.

Tomas Villanueva, DO

Accessing the expertise of ID specialists who work on the teaching service can help hospitalists stay abreast of treatment trends, notes Dr. Winawer. Because of Grady Memorial’s affiliation with Emory University, house staff can access the expertise of the university’s world-renowned ID program through the teaching service. As a result, house staff are more aware of issues related to treating HIV/AIDS, he says.

Hospitalists likely will not be the lead physicians for managing HIV/AIDS patients once admitted, especially if their institutions are affiliated with university teaching hospitals. However, hospitalists can still have an impact on providing essential public health messages and improving the quality of care. HIV and ID specialist Harry Hollander, MD, program director for the University of California at San Francisco Internal Medicine Residency Program and professor of Clinical Medicine at UCSF, notes that hospitalists can play a reinforcing role by educating patients to modify risk behaviors. For instance, he says, “If patients are admitted with complications of risk behaviors that may be associated with HIV infection—such as sexually transmitted infections, or medical problems related to injection drug use—addressing those issues becomes as important as imparting a smoking cessation message to someone who comes in with pneumonia or pulmonary problems.”

Emphasizing links to care is another key role for hospitalists. At Grady, reports Dr. Winawer, at least 60 inpatients with HIV/AIDS are being treated at any given time by the four immunology service teams run by the Department of Infectious Diseases, as well as 12 ward teams and four ICU teams.

Most indigent patients do not have strong social support, so Dr. Winawer emphasizes how hospitalists can provide compassionate care by collaborating with social workers. For example, HIV patients admitted to the hospital with respiratory illnesses might be placed in isolation to rule out tuberculosis. “Many times these patients do not have good family or other social support, and they are left in their room to dwell on their diagnosis. It can feel very isolating and demoralizing if they do not have knowledge of services that can be offered to them. So it is critical to involve social services at that time.”

Make a Difference at Discharge

Can hospitalists do a better job of acquainting themselves with community resources available to discharged patients? Dr. Mathew believes so but concedes hospitalists may not have the time. He notes that funding for HIV/AIDS outpatient clinics is at an all-time high, and social workers are expert in linking patients with outside resources.

Social workers at [an] ID clinic, he said, “are very, very attentive to the needs of their patients.”

Strong alliances with social workers are critical for hospitalists who see large numbers of indigent HIV/AIDS patients, says Dr. Winawer. “These patients often use the hospital as their primary care center,” he notes. “So the inpatient social workers know them better than their colleagues in the ID clinic do. A lot of the ‘bounce-backs’ we see are related to non-compliance [with therapy regimens], to substance abuse, or to other issues related to housing and environments that are not conducive to taking their medications.

“There are a lot of factors that cause our patients to not receive the best care upon their discharge. From my perspective as a hospitalist, once they no longer have criteria for hospitalization, much depends on patients’ willingness to do the things that you try to promote. Social services can play a big part so that [patients] don’t fall through the cracks due to their inability to afford medication or proper housing. From our experience, a highly functional network of social support is critical.”

Any encounter with the healthcare system is an opportunity for education. Dr. Villanueva includes education as one of his primary roles in dealing with HIV-positive patients. “I’m working now not only on education, but communication,” he says. “We pretty much have to be the physician champions in making sure we communicate with all parties.” TH


  1. Revised recommendations for HIV testing of adults, adolescents and pregnant women in health-care settings. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, September 22, 2006/ 55(RR14); 1-17. Available online at Last accessed April 27, 2007.
  2. HIV infection in infants and children. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Fact Sheet, July 2004. Available at Last accessed May 22, 2007.

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