Results of a randomized trial of partner notification in cases of HIV infection in North Carolina

N Engl J Med. 1992 Jan 9;326(2):101-6. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199201093260205.


Background: We sought to compare two methods of notifying sex partners of subjects infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or persons who had shared needles with them (needle-sharing partners): "patient referral," in which the responsibility for notifying partners was left to the patient, and "provider referral," in which providers attempted to notify partners.

Methods: Names of sex partners and needle-sharing partners and information on how to locate them were obtained from consenting HIV-infected subjects identified in the HIV-testing programs at three public health departments in North Carolina. The subjects were randomly assigned to a patient-referral group (in which patients had the initial responsibility for notifying their partners) or a provider-referral group (in which the study counselor notified the partners). The success of attempts to notify partners was monitored by means of interviews with counselors conducted both in the field and at the health department.

Results: Of 534 HIV-positive persons identified at the health departments, 247 (46 percent) did not return for counseling after the test, 8 were counseled outside the study, and 117 (22 percent) were ineligible. Of the 162 invited to participate, 88 (54 percent) declined and 74 (46 percent) agreed. The subjects were mostly male (69 percent), black (87 percent), homosexual or bisexual (76 percent of the men), and had a median age of 30 years. Thirty-nine were assigned to the provider-referral group and 35 to the patient-referral group. In the provider-referral group 78 of 157 partners (50 percent) were successfully notified, whereas in the patient-referral group only 10 of 153 (7 percent) were notified. Of the partners notified by the counselors, 94 percent were not aware that they had been exposed to HIV. Overall, 23 percent of the partners notified and tested were HIV-positive.

Conclusions: In this trial, leaving the notification of partners up to the subjects (patient referral) was quite ineffective, despite the North Carolina law requiring that partners be notified. Partner notification by public health counselors (provider referral) was significantly more effective. Although the effectiveness of notification procedures is constrained by the accuracy of the information provided by HIV-infected patients, counselors who notify the partners of an infected patient can refer them to educational, medical, and support services targeted to persons at high risk for HIV infection and may encourage the adoption of less risky behavior.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Black or African American
  • Contact Tracing / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Contact Tracing / methods*
  • Counseling
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / transmission*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Needle Sharing*
  • North Carolina
  • Patients / psychology
  • Random Allocation
  • Sexual Partners*