When a patient is diagnosed with a chronic illness, his or her top concern is likely medical care. But for people who are HIV-positive, treatment is just one of many obstacles. Patrick Coleman, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Piedmont Physicians Group, says HIV patients must also overcome stigmas and myths associated with their diagnosis – something those with other lifelong conditions may not have to face.
“The most common misconception is who is at risk. Anyone who is sexually active is at risk,” says Dr. Coleman. “Many people think HIV is only a gay problem, but here and in many other parts of the world, that is not the case. HIV can be contracted through both heterosexual and homosexual unprotected sex.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that everyone who is sexually active get tested every year, regardless of martial or relationship status.
“Another common misconception is that HIV is a death sentence. With treatment, it becomes a chronic disease, not unlike diabetes or hypertension,” he says. “And after all these years, there are still misconceptions about how you contract HIV. You can’t get it from touching, kissing or working with someone who has HIV.”
In the past, HIV was considered a terminal diagnosis. Now, thanks to drug therapies, survival rates have drastically improved. With daily medication, people who are HIV-positive can live normal, productive and healthy lives with what experts hope to be normal life expectancies.
“People are sometimes reluctant to start taking their medication because of the regimented schedule,” he says. “However, the majority of patients need to take only one pill once a day, which is a far cry from what they used to have. In the past, patients were taking up to 30 pills a day.”
Complications, while uncommon, are usually the result of not taking medication as directed. When not taken as scheduled, the virus can become resistant to medication.
“Most people I treat have never experienced opportunistic infections associated with HIV,” he says. “Once an HIV patient is on a medication regimen, he or she is on an equal playing field immune-wise with people who do not have HIV.”
First, those with HIV should start practicing safe sex if they are not already.
“Many times, sexual partners are reluctant to continue [the relationship],” explains Dr. Coleman. “However, it is absolutely possible for couples to continue long-lasting, healthy relationships over many years without the uninfected partner contracting HIV.”
It is also possible for pregnant women, with treatment, to decrease the risk of their child becoming HIV-positive.
To maintain good health, Dr. Coleman recommends patients with HIV see their healthcare provider on a quarterly basis.
An HIV diagnosis can have a significant emotional impact.
“The stigma that comes along with HIV and the necessary lifestyle changes can lead to depression and substance abuse,” he says.
Dr. Coleman encourages patients to educate themselves about their condition, seek counseling and establish a relationship with a healthcare provider who specializes in infectious diseases or a primary care physician who treats HIV patients on a regular basis.
“Finances are not nearly as big of an issue as they used to be. Insurance coverage is much better, which is so important because medications are usually very expensive,” he says.
Most states, as well as pharmaceutical companies, have programs for those who cannot afford health insurance that will allow them access to medication and medical care.
“Prior to 1994, we had medications that were helpful in treating HIV, but did not control it. Then a class of drugs called entry inhibitors came out. With that, we were able to change the treatment of HIV forever,” he says.
Experts hope to have even better HIV treatment options in the future and are working to develop an HIV vaccine.
“Research is being done all the time and there is great hope out there,” says Dr. Coleman.
Establishing a relationship with a healthcare provider is important, whether or not you have a chronic illness. To find a physician near you, click here.