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"Providing STI/HIV screenings and counseling is a great example of how important early detection and prevention can be," says Schweitzer Fellow Aldric Jones (pictured, left, with Schweitzer Fellow Tiffany Covas).

At last month’s National HIV Prevention Conference, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced “Testing Makes Us Stronger”—a new education campaign to prevent HIV and other STI infections among vulnerable populations.

“Testing Makes Us Stronger” could very well be the tagline of Aldric Jones and Tiffany Covas’ Schweitzer project—a project that is expanding at-risk North Carolinians’ access to life-saving HIV/STI education and screenings. Partnering with the Forsyth Co. Dept. of Public Health and AIDS Care Services, the duo of Schweitzer Fellows have implemented HIV/STI counseling and testing at the Delivering Equal Access to Care (DEAC) Clinic of Wake Forest School of Medicine. They’re also working to provide outreach and education to vulnerable community members who shy away from testing due to perceived stigma and expected costs.

In this week’s installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow,” we talk with Jones about his and Covas’ efforts to destigmatize HIV/STI testing (and ultimately prevent the spread of HIV/STIs); next week, we’ll bring you Covas’ perspective.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

When we started medical school [at Wake Forest University], we learned that there was high incidence of syphilis in the community that our medical center serves—especially among the young African-American population. This was concerning because this group is at a higher risk of contracting HIV as well.

Being a part of the black community and growing up in the South, I know how hard it can be for younger people to obtain information about HIV and STIs. I know others my age who have contracted HIV or other STIs, or who delayed getting a test because they did not have the proper information or access to appropriate resources. While I understand that it can be a difficult issue for many people to discuss, awkwardness or discomfort should not hinder a person’s ability to ask questions and get important information.

We realized that we could provide a new resource for individuals to obtain information about STIs/HIV by offering STI/HIV screenings and counseling at our student-run clinic, DEAC, which already provides an array of health services to underserved populations.  We hope that by establishing testing at our clinic and doing outreach in the community, we can also tackle some of the misconceptions and stigma that still exist about STIs and HIV.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

Research has shown that early detection and treatment are important parts of combating the spread of HIV. I hope that the patients we serve will adopt a culture of knowing their HIV status and making HIV/STI testing a part of their overall health and wellness check-ups. I hope that we will contribute to a decrease in stigma related to receiving an HIV or STI test in the communities that we serve.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

A lack of access to affordable health care is becoming a problem for more and more people. While this problem is especially pressing for those without health insurance, it is increasingly becoming a problem for those with health insurance, too, as the cost of health care continues to increase. A fear of health-related expenses should not keep people from receiving medical care—and may actually cause individuals to require more serious and costly care in the future.  Providing STI/HIV screenings and counseling is a great example of how important early detection and prevention can be.

In developing our project, we talked with a number of individuals who only found out their HIV-positive status after developing an AIDS-related illness. This type of situation will likely become more common if the cost of care continues to rise, as people will avoid screening and preventive medicine. The Affordable Care Act does address this issue by prohibiting co-pays and deductibles for recommended preventive procedures.

I believe that there should be an increased focus on primary care and preventive medicine, as well as the development of greater incentives to attract providers to these fields of medicine rather than specialties. Providers should also be rewarded for their efforts to keep people healthy—and not just for the number of procedures they perform.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

The support that community members and organizations have shown for our project.

One of the goals of our project was to build collaborations between community organizations—which is an important step to ensuring the sustainability of our project.  We have built relationships with our county health department, other student organizations at our medical school, and various community-based organizations. Our project continues to grow and strengthen because of the support we have received, and I hope to continue to develop new partnerships throughout the Fellowship.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

I was truly motivated to apply and develop a Schweitzer project after hearing previous Schweitzer Fellows discuss their projects at my school. These students had implemented projects that addressed urgent health problems in creative and collaborative ways—one of the main reasons that I wanted to become a doctor.

Being a Schweitzer Fellow will give me the opportunity to develop and enhance skills that will be of use during my lifetime of service to my patients and my community.   Being a Fellow for Life also means that I will have access to a network of professionals who value service to the community and a place where I can look for advice and inspiration not only as we complete our project in the coming months, but also in the future.

Jones is a Schweitzer Fellows in North Carolina. Click here to read more about The North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Jones it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Jones’ efforts to increase access to HIV/STI testing, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.