Counseling support for HIV self-testing (HIVST) users is essential to ensure support and linkage to care among men who have sex with men (MSM). An HIVST service with web-based real-time instruction, pretest, and posttest counseling provided by trained administrators (HIVST-OIC) was developed by previous projects. Although the HIVST-OIC was highly effective in increasing HIVST uptake and the proportion of HIVST users receiving counseling along with testing, it required intensive resources to implement and sustain. The service capacity of HIVST-OIC cannot meet the increasing demands of HIVST.
This randomized controlled trial primarily aims to establish whether HIVST-chatbot, an innovative HIVST service with web-based real-time instruction and counseling provided by a fully automated chatbot, would produce effects that are similar to HIVST-OIC in increasing HIVST uptake and the proportion of HIVST users receiving counseling alongside testing among MSM within a 6-month follow-up period.
A parallel-group, noninferiority randomized controlled trial will be conducted with Chinese-speaking MSM aged ≥18 years with access to live-chat applications. A total of 528 participants will be recruited through multiple sources, including outreach in gay venues, web-based advertisement, and peer referral. After completing the baseline telephone survey, participants will be randomized evenly into the intervention or control groups. Intervention group participants will watch a web-based video promoting HIVST-chatbot and receive a free HIVST kit. The chatbot will contact the participant to implement HIVST and provide standard-of-care, real-time pretest and posttest counseling and instructions on how to use the HIVST kit through WhatsApp. Control group participants will watch a web-based video promoting HIVST-OIC and receive a free HIVST kit in the same manner. Upon appointment, a trained testing administrator will implement HIVST and provide standard-of-care, real-time pretest and posttest counseling and instructions on how to use the HIVST kit through live-chat applications. All participants will complete a telephone follow-up survey 6 months after the baseline. The primary outcomes are HIVST uptake and the proportion of HIVST users receiving counseling support along with testing in the past 6 months, measured at month 6. Secondary outcomes include sexual risk behaviors and uptake of HIV testing other than HIVST during the follow-up period. Intention-to-treat analysis will be used.
This study will generate important research and policy implications regarding chatbot use in HIVST services. If HIVST-chatbot is proven noninferior to HIVST-OIC, it can be easily integrated into existing HIVST services in Hong Kong, given its relatively low resource requirements for implementation and maintenance. HIVST-chatbot can potentially overcome the barriers to using HIVST. Therefore, the coverage of HIV testing, the level of support, and the linkage to care for MSM HIVST users will be increased.