Understanding the relationship between couple dynamics and engagement with HIV care services: insights from a qualitative study in Eastern and Southern Africa

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Abstract

Objective

To explore the interplay between couple dynamics and the engagement of people living with HIV (PLHIV) with HIV care and treatment services in three health and demographic surveillance sites in Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa.

Methods

A qualitative study was conducted involving 107 in-depth interviews with PLHIV with a range of HIV care and treatment histories, including current users of HIV clinics, and people not enrolled in HIV care. Interviews explored experiences of living with HIV and how and why they chose to engage or not with HIV services. Thematic analysis was conducted with the aid of NVivo 10.

Results

We found an interplay between couple dynamics and HIV care and treatment-seeking behaviour in Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa. Being in a relationship impacted on the level and type of engagement with HIV services in multiple ways. In some instances, couples living with HIV supported each other which improved their engagement with care and strengthened their relationships. The desire to fulfil societal expectations and attract a new partner, or have a baby with a new partner, or to receive emotional or financial support, strengthened on-going engagement with HIV care and treatment. However, fear of blame, abandonment or abuse resulted in unwillingness to disclose and often led to disputes or discord between couples. There was little evidence of intracouple understanding of each other’s lived experiences with HIV, and we found that couples rarely interacted with the formal health system together.

Conclusions

Couple dynamics influenced engagement with HIV testing, care and treatment for both partners through a myriad of pathways. Couple-friendly approaches to HIV care and treatment are needed that move beyond individualised care and which recognise partner roles in HIV care engagement.

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