Q: I recently heard that you can now buy at-home HIV tests in pharmacies and drug stores. I like the idea of testing in the privacy of my own home, but how exactly do they work? Is it a good idea to do this at home rather than go to my doctor's office?"
A: Yes, you can buy at home HIV tests (such as Home Access Express HIV-1 and OraQuick) at your local pharmacy. Let me explain briefly how they work, and cover some of the issues to consider before you decide whether to use an at-home test.
Let's start with the Home Access kit, which requires a small blood sample and provides an overnight Fed-Ex mailer. Results are available via phone as soon as the next day. The cost is between $50-$75. However, in July of 2012, the FDA approved the OraQuick oral swab test for home use. The user swabs his or her mouth and then places the swab in the conrol solution. Results are available in 20 minutes. This will be available in pharmacies in October of 2012 and will cost anywhere from $17-$30. The oral test is currently only available at clinics or by organizations licensed to perform the test.
If you have a fear of clinics or doctors, the home HIV test could be one viable option. However, the oral test is 99.98% accurate when administered by a healthcare professiona. This number drops to 92% when used at home, which is probably due to user error. I would recommend using the at home test during the day when your primary care physican's office is open. If the test comes out positive, you have someone to call and guide you on what the next step is. Also, if testing alone, have friends or family that you can call if needed.
The CDC also provides a national AIDS hotline that is open 24 hours a day: (800)-CDC-INFO. The GMHC in New York City also has a hotline and can refer patients to prosepctive physicians in New York along with counseling services (800)-AIDS-NYC. Check with your state for the AIDS hotline in your area.
The home test is best for people who are already well educated on the test and HIV in general. In my professional opinion, testing at your physician's office or respective HIV organization will offer proper care and counseling. It should be noted that a negative test doesn't mean you're 100% negative. Both tests rely on HIV antibodies in the system. Antibodies typically form 3-6 months after exposure and then seroconversion. A negative test at 6 months after possible exposure would be a conclusive negative test. -- Heath P. Dobson Jr., Community Pharm, RPh