Experiences of stigma in healthcare settings among adults living with HIV in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Fatemeh Rahmati-Najarkolaei, Shamsaddin Niknami, Farkhondeh Aminshokravi, Mohsen Bazargan, Fazlollah Ahmadi, Ebrahim Hadjizadeh, Sedigheh S Tavafian
Journal of the International AIDS Society 2010 July 22, 13: 27

BACKGROUND: People living with HIV (PLHIV) sometimes experience discrimination. There is little understanding of the causes, forms and consequences of this stigma in Islamic countries. This qualitative study explored perceptions and experiences of PLHIV regarding both the quality of healthcare and the attitudes and behaviours of their healthcare providers in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

METHODS: In-depth, semi-structured interviews were held with a purposively selected group of 69 PLHIV recruited from two HIV care clinics in Tehran. Data were analyzed using the content analysis approach.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: Nearly all participants reported experiencing stigma and discrimination by their healthcare providers in a variety of contexts. Participants perceived that their healthcare providers' fear of being infected with HIV, coupled with religious and negative value-based assumptions about PLHIV, led to high levels of stigma. Participants mentioned at least four major forms of stigma: (1) refusal of care; (2) sub-optimal care; (3) excessive precautions and physical distancing; and (4) humiliation and blaming. The participants' healthcare-seeking behavioural reactions to perceived stigma and discrimination included avoiding or delaying seeking care, not disclosing HIV status when seeking healthcare, and using spiritual healing. In addition, emotional responses to perceived acts of stigma included feeling undeserving of care, diminished motivation to stay healthy, feeling angry and vengeful, and experiencing emotional stress.

CONCLUSIONS: While previous studies demonstrate that most Iranian healthcare providers report fairly positive attitudes towards PLHIV, our participants' experiences tell a different story. Therefore, it is imperative to engage both healthcare providers and PLHIV in designing interventions targeting stigma in healthcare settings. Additionally, specialized training programmes in universal precautions for health providers will lead to stigma reduction. National policies to strengthen medical training and to provide funding for stigma-reduction programming are strongly recommended. Investigating Islamic literature and instruction, as well as requesting official public statements from religious leaders regarding stigma and discrimination in healthcare settings, should be used in educational intervention programmes targeting healthcare providers. Finally, further studies are needed to investigate the role of the physician and religion in the local context.

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