The theme of this year’s World AIDS Day is “Let Communities Lead.” This is not only a call to action, but also a recognition of the irreplaceable contribution of community members in the success of global programs and their critical role in their own health care.
We had the honor of capturing a brief interview between two of our wonderful I-TECH colleagues in Trinidad and Tobago–Alana Lum Lock Cardinez, Program Advisor, and Conrad Mitchell, Program Manager. Here, Alana asks Conrad for his perspective as both a community member and project lead, as well as about the lessons learned when communities aren’t engaged (4:15).
In 2019, I-TECH conducted an on-site assessment at Trinidad and Tobago’s largest HIV treatment site. The findings of that assessment led to the establishment of an integrated psychosocial program at this site that has yielded favorable results. This further inspired the need for expansion of this psychosocial approach to other HIV treatment and care sites.
In 2022, I-TECH collaborated with the HIV/AIDS Coordinating Unit (HACU) of the Ministry of Health (MOH) to conduct a similar rapid assessment throughout the national treatment and care sites. The results reflected that there was a need for specialized staff to identify and treat common mental health and psychosocial concerns, as well as a standardized approach. Therefore, I-TECH is supporting the HACU to lead the expansion and strengthening of mental health and psychosocial (MHPS) service delivery for persons living with HIV at HIV treatment and care sites in Trinidad and Tobago. Goals include the standardization of psychosocial assessments to support the early identification of psychological distress, symptoms of co-morbid mental illness and psychosocial issues; as well as the standardization of the procedures for making interventions.
Developing a draft MHPS Protocol to include screening and intervention tools and psychosocial standard operating procedures (SOPs)
Establishing a standardized referral system
Training and supporting psychosocial team members in the use of the SOPs and all screening and assessment tools. Training will address areas of intimate partner violence, gender-based violence, and mental health challenges that are frequently encountered within the client population
Training and supporting psychosocial team members in data collection and reporting requirements
Training and capacity -building of psychosocial team members of the Psychosocial Coordination Unit being established by the HACU
I-TECH partners with the HIV/AIDS Coordinating Unit (HACU) of the Ministry of Health (MOH), the National AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC) of the Office of the Prime Minister, and other local organizations to make accessible learning and capacity-building opportunities for all cadres of health care workers.
Learning Management System (LMS): I-TECH and the University of Washington Department of Global Health’s eLearning Program (eDGH) collaborated to adapt an LMS for Trinidad and Tobago from the Jamaica LMS. The LMS for Trinidad and Tobago will support ongoing, standardized capacity-building of an increased number of health care providers in a cost-effective way. The LMS will also function as a monitoring and evaluation tool for training and skill building. I-TECH will support, develop, and adapt HIV course material and provide local administration and coordination support.
Key Populations Preceptorship Web Modules: I-TECH is currently developing self-paced, eLearning training modules to improve providers’ knowledge, skill, and comfort in providing respectful and gender-affirming care for gay and bisexual men, other men who have sex with men, people of transgender experience, and people engaging in sex work. This module will be an adaptation of the innovative in-person Key Population Preceptorship (KPP) Program for Clinicians and will be made accessible on the I-TECH/eDGH LMS that is being developed. The modules will incorporate video recordings featuring local community members, modeling of best practices, and show interactive exercises.
UW eDGH Online Courses: I-TECH, through eDGH and in collaboration with HACU and the NACC Office of the Prime Minister, provides online certification courses to health care providers in Trinidad and Tobago. Courses include: Clinical Management of HIV; Leadership and Management in Health; Fundamentals in Global Health Research; Policy Development and Advocacy for Global Health; Project Management in Global Health; Monitoring and Evaluation in Global Health; Fundamentals of Implementation Science; Wellbeing for Healthcare Professionals; and Global Mental Health.
Medical Research Foundation of Trinidad and Tobago (MRFTT) HIV/STI Project ECHO® Series: In April 2019, I-TECH supported MRFTT, the HIV treatment site with the largest adult population in Trinidad and Tobago, to become an ECHO® hub site. The hub provides virtual clinical consultation support as well as brief didactic sessions for healthcare workers in Trinidad and Tobago on a range of medical/clinical and psychosocial topics, as well as those relevant to HIV care, treatment and support. Healthcare workers (HCWs) who have benefitted from the series not only include those from Trinidad and Tobago, but also HCWs from Haiti, Barbados, Bahamas, St. Vincent, Grenada, and Florida, USA.
Management of HIV Infections Diploma Course: In 2014, I-TECH partnered with the University of the West Indies (UWI) – St. Augustine campus in Trinidad and Tobago to develop a blended eLearning course that enables HCWs to provide high-quality clinical management of patients living with HIV. This ten-month post-graduate diploma program is delivered through a series of online, self-paced courses taught by UWI faculty, and is augmented by synchronous virtual classroom discussions and hands-on, clinical practicum experiences. In recent years, I-TECH worked with the UWI to integrate extensive care and treatment content specifically focused on comprehensive care for key populations affected by HIV. The course is offered annually to healthcare workers from PEPFAR priority sites in the region. Course graduates include health care workers from Trinidad, Jamaica, Suriname, and Barbados.
Reducing stigma and discrimination toward vulnerable groups in health care settings can have a positive impact on enrollment in care, retention in care and treatment, and viral suppression of HIV. The Key Populations Preceptorship (KPP) program is a simulated one-on-one patient-provider training program that brings together a health care provider and a preceptorship trainer (PT), who is a member of a key population group, with the observation of a training facilitator. The PT takes on the role of a mock patient and uses a pre-scripted scenario as a guide to interact with the provider-in-training, giving feedback after each scenario. The KPP builds the provider’s capacity to provide comprehensive and nonjudgmental care to key population groups including gay and bisexual men, other men who have sex with men, persons of trans experience, and sex workers.
The KPP was adapted based on Jamaica’s KPP for clinicians in 2016 for physicians in Trinidad. In 2017, it was adapted for nurses and was delivered in-person over the course of a two-day period. In response to COVID-19 protocols, the KPP for social workers, which was adapted in 2020, was delivered virtually.
I-TECH Trinidad and Tobago collaborates with local organizations to implement programs focused on supporting the health and wellness of people living with HIV (PLHIV), including:
• National HIV Helpline: The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for virtual support and information on HIV testing, care, treatment, and support, and an increased need for guidance and psychosocial support for PLHIV. This prompted the need for a central line for communication and connection to the HIV/AIDS network. For World AIDS Day 2021, the National AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC), Office of the Prime Minister, in collaboration with the HIV AIDS Coordinating Unit (HACU) of the Ministry of Health and I-TECH, launched the national HIV helpline. I-TECH provides technical assistance, training, and capacity building support to the HIV Helpline Coordinator and Active Listeners and is supporting efforts to raise the social media profile to increase caller volume.
•Patient Health and Literacy: In collaboration with the National AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC), Office of the Prime Minister and a technical working group comprised of PLHIV and non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives, I-TECH developed content across nine topic areas aimed at improving PLHIV health and treatment literacy. The content was integrated into the inaugural NACC website in a dedicated section titled “It’s All About U:” Identifying the Key Steps to a Healthier U, along your path to becoming Undetectable. Topic areas were focused on promoting and encouraging U=U with content titled: U and Your Dream Team; A healthy U; All about U and HIV; What U may get wrong; Your journey to U; U and your Partner; U in the future – HIV and Aging; U and your Baby – HIV and Pregnancy; HIV and COIVD-19 . The website is expected to facilitate wider access and reach to the PLHIV community and is the first content of its kind to provide consolidated, standardized and culturally appropriate material on HIV and AIDS treatment, care, and support in Trinidad and Tobago.
Recently, representatives from the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) met with health officials in Trinidad and Tobago to discuss potential areas of support for strengthening the national response to HIV and AIDS in the country.
The meeting attendees discussed strengthening advocacy for people living with HIV (PLHIV); psychosocial support for vulnerable PLHIV; and providing services at the intersection of HIV and AIDS and gender-based violence (GBV).
With support from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), I-TECH has worked in Trinidad and Tobago since 2009, collaborating with the Ministry of Health and other partners to focus on healthcare worker training and technical assistance to improve the quality of care for PLHIV.
“I’ve always been impressed with the team and activities in Trinidad and Tobago,” says Misti McDowell, I-TECH Program Director, “especially the integration of much-needed mental health services into the HIV program.”
The assessment “Strengthening Delivery and Oversight of Mental Health and Psychosocial Services for PLHIV in Trinidad and Tobago” was completed by I-TECH and shared with the National AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC), in an effort to identify future areas of collaboration. One of the intended outcomes is the establishment of a technical working group of national stakeholders who will collaborate with I-TECH to craft a strategy for implementing all priority interventions.
“The findings of this assessment revealed that there is a tremendous need for improved mental health support specifically in the areas of assessment and treatment throughout the national HIV treatment and care sites,” says Belinda White, Clinical Psychologist with I-TECH. “One treatment and care site reported that as much as 90% of its client population experiences symptoms of mental illnesses.”
The most common mental illnesses encountered within treatment and care sites include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; substance use disorder is also common within the PLHIV client population. A key area of interest is the integration of the Collaborative Care Model into the already existing treatment and care system, in a manner that incorporates the unique features of each site. The Collaborative Care Model is an evidence-based approach to treating common mental health conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety) in primary care settings and was developed at the University of Washington.
I-TECH also assisted the NACC with the establishment of the National HIV Helpline and will continue to provide support over the next six months, while working to transition the program fully to NACC. This includes support for the HIV Helpline Coordinator and Active Listeners, as well as training of new Active Listeners.
“We must continue fighting the stigma associated with living with HIV,” says Conrad Mitchell, Program Coordinator. “It’s important to continue to battle misinformation and to have that coupled with positive true-life experiences. The Helpline–manned by persons living with HIV together, with HIV NGO advocates and allies–provides a unique opportunity to combat misinformation though empathy and education in direct, one-on-one engagements with the public.”
A 2017 Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) National Women’s Health Survey for Trinidad and Tobago showed that more than 30 percent of women in Trinidad and Tobago had reported having experienced at least one incidence of either physical or sexual partner violence. The NACC is seeking support related to GBV and the risks it poses to the health and well-being of PLHIV. Activities would focus on raising awareness and providing resources and psychosocial support for vulnerable groups.
“There is a lack of general knowledge about GBV and what it entails among the public as well as in some health care settings,” says Ms. White. “There is an opportunity to yield enormously positive results by increasing the knowledge and insight of health care workers, and people living with HIV, regarding GBV.
“My hope is that the information that is shared empowers people living with HIV to advocate for themselves if they come to the realization that they are experiencing,” she continues, “and to make contact with the local resources that are available to receive the necessary support.”
In honor of Transgender Awareness Week (November 13-19), the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH) pays tribute to Trinidad & Tobago transgender activist and esteemed community leader Brandy Rodriguez, who passed away in late October.
Ms. Rodriguez leaves a legacy of leadership as president of the Trinidad and Tobago Transgender Coalition and a member of the Pan Caribbean Partnership against HIV and AIDS. She improved countless lives among those she supported in her many years as a peer navigator at the Family Planning Association of Trinidad and Tobago. Countless more lives were touched – and perspectives broadened – through her tenacity and compassion.
“A tireless champion for the trans community, Brandy held an open door and a willing ear to any lost children of our LGBTQ tribe,” says Conrad Mitchell, I-TECH’s Program Coordinator in Trinidad & Tobago. “Her fiery tongue and sharp wit kept us all in check, whilst her warm heart overflowed with a love that was unsurpassed. Her fearlessness was legendary both within the community and across local, regional, and international platforms. We are shaken to the core by this loss. The world is forever a little less ‘fierce’ with Brandy gone.”
The Key Populations Preceptorship program’s intensive trainings use targeted role-play scenarios to build clinicians’ capacity to provide nonjudgmental, high-quality comprehensive HIV care to communities most at risk: men who have sex with men, transgender people, and sex workers. Through this work with I-TECH, Ms. Rodriguez contributed to critical efforts to break down stigma and barriers to care experienced by marginalized communities. The first physician trained as part of the program in Trinidad & Tobago, Dr. Vedavid Manick, shared his experience with Ms. Rodriguez beautifully in a Trinidad and Tobago Newsday letter to the editor.