Background: Transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to five patients receiving care from an HIV-infected dentist in Florida has recently been reported. Current data indicate that the risk of HIV transmission from health care workers to patients is low. Despite this low risk, programs to notify patients of past exposure to an HIV-infected health care worker are being conducted with increasing frequency.
Methods: We recently conducted an investigation of all the patients cared for by an HIV-infected family physician during a period when he had severe dermatitis caused by Mycobacterium marinum on his hands and forearms. After reviewing the patients' records, we notified 336 patients who had undergone one or more procedures (digital examination of a body cavity or vaginal delivery) placing them at potentially increased risk of HIV infection. The patients were offered tests for HIV infection and counseling.
Results: Of the 336 patients, 325 (97 percent) had negative tests for HIV antibody, 3 (1 percent) refused testing, 1 (less than 1 percent) died of a cause unrelated to HIV infection before notification, and the HIV-antibody status of 7 (2 percent) remained unknown. The direct and indirect public health costs of this investigation were approximately $130,000.
Conclusions: The results of this investigation raise important questions about the risk of HIV transmission from health care workers to patients and the usefulness of HIV look-back programs, particularly in the light of recently published recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control. We propose that before a look-back investigation is undertaken, there should be a clearly identifiable risk of transmission of the infection, substantially higher than the risk requiring limitation of an HIV-infected health care worker's practice prospectively.