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Who is providing HIV testing services? The profile of lay counsellors providing HIV testing services in Johannesburg, South Africa in the treat-all era.

BACKGROUND: Lay counsellors are critical in sustaining access to HIV testing services (HTS) and psychosocial support for persons living with HIV (PLHIV). We aimed to describe the professional and psychosocial profiles of lay counsellors in primary healthcare (PHC) clinics in Johannesburg, South Africa under the universal-test-and-treat (UTT) policy context.

METHODS: We conducted a descriptive analysis of a cross-sectional survey among adult (≥ 18 years) lay counsellors from 20 PHC facilities (2-3/ clinic) in Johannesburg, South Africa. Consenting counsellors were interviewed between June 2018 and March 2019. We report on counsellors' demographic profiles, training, work experience, and mental and emotional well-being.

RESULTS: Overall, 55 consenting adult (≥ 18 years) lay counsellors (92.7% female, median age 37 years, interquartile range [IQR]: 33-44, and 27.3% HIV diagnosed) were surveyed. Most (85.5%) were Department of Health lay counsellors receiving a volunteer stipend at the time. Overall, 56.4% had been working as counsellors for five years or longer. The majority (87%) had completed the National HIV Testing Services Policy Guidelines-recommended 10-day basic counselling training, but 45.2% had not completed refresher training within the guideline's required 24 months. Reported operational barriers include lack of designated space for counselling (56.4%), inadequate professional supervision and support (40.7%) and insufficient emotional support (over 56.4%), and 60% were overwhelmed by their workload. A total of 18.2% had major depressive symptoms, and the same proportion scored low for psychological well-being. While most (87.3%) reported moderate job satisfaction, 50.9% actively sought alternative employment.

CONCLUSION: Despite lay counsellors' significant role in delivering HIV care in South Africa, there has been minimal investment in their skills development, emotional support, and integration into the formal health workforce. Counsellors' persisting unmet psychosocial, training, and professional needs could impact their efficacy in the UTT era.

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