With widespread accessibility of mobile technology, researchers hope a new app may support the wellbeing of HIV-positive youth.
A study funded by the National Institutes for Health drew together faculty from across the country, including some from the University of Minnesota, to develop an app – called “Youth Thrive”. The app for mobile devices reminds HIV-positive youth to take their medications.
The five-year study is in its earliest stages, and the team will spend the next year developing the app and getting feedback from youth before they launch it at the end of 2017, said Keith Horvath, community health and epidemiology professor at the University.
While the project officially started in July, Horvath said it took a few months to get moving. He said the NIH funded two other centers to research technology’s impact on slowing HIV’s spread.
The idea for the app stemmed from an earlier program for adult men living with HIV, he said.
The original app is already in the field and lets users talk to each other and access specific information about their situation. It also sends text message reminders to take medications.
“All of the studies use technology since we’re really a technology-based center,” Horvath said. "We’re trying to figure out how can we really leverage technologies for youth either who are living with HIV in the case of my study or youth who are at high risk for HIV.”
Horvath works remotely for the University of North Carolina and Emory University’s Center for Innovative Technology, or iTech.
Patrick Sullivan, an epidemiology professor at Emory and principal investigator for the study, has spent most of his career studying data on the AIDS epidemic and how to fight it.
“Unfortunately, where the epidemic is still growing in the United States is among men who have sex with men, and particularly young men who have sex with men,” he said.
Sullivan said he got involved because he thinks technology is most effective to intervene and address the needs of this HIV risk group.
The most important part of the study, he said, is to find whether the app changes health behaviors and clinical outcomes of the technology’s users.
“We want to generate data that are actually strong enough to support public investment in making these services available more broadly,” Sullivan said.
To achieve this public support, the next five years will include multiple rounds of reviews of the technology by thousands of participants in seven cities.
Sullivan said using technology for HIV-positive youth is an apt move because they are used to apps and mobile devices that help them communicate.
“In terms of thinking down the road, if you’re going to … have a larger impact on the epidemic, you really need these kinds of tools to be accessible and have a far reach,” he said.
Meghan Rothenberger,director of the Youth and Aids Project, works primarily with 17 to 30 year-old patients.
Rothenberger said many HIV-positive youth struggle to maintain treatment and establish regular clinics. Many also juggle housing instability, mental health problems or substance abuse.
“Those are really immediate things to think about,” she said. “HIV sort of is on the back burner because they’re trying to figure out where they’re going to sleep and where they’re going to get food."
Rothenberger said some clinics have tried to be more youth-friendly by hiring providers who understand how to take care of youth transitioning into adulthood.
She said many HIV-positive youth are more comfortable using technology-based help because it’s more private.
Horvath said the team will conduct focus groups in Chicago, New York City and Houston to figure out what HIV-positive youth respond to best — the feedback will help further develop the technology.
“It just takes some time to really do it right,” he said. “This is really a lot of preparatory work.”
Horvath said he hopes the study encourages HIV-positive youth to better navigate how to consistently take medications.
“There’s still so much stigma around it and so much that youth especially have to try to juggle," he said.