Implementation of an mHealth App to Promote Engagement During HIV Care and Viral Load Suppression in Johannesburg, South Africa (iThemba Life): Pilot Technical Feasibility and Acceptability Study

JMIR Form Res. 2022 Feb 2;6(2):e26033. doi: 10.2196/26033.


Background: South Africa has the largest HIV treatment program worldwide. Retention in care and medication adherence remain problematic necessitating innovative solutions for improving HIV care. The increasing availability and use of mobile technology can support positive clinical outcomes for persons living with HIV. iThemba Life is a mobile health app designed with input from South African health professionals and patients, promoting engagement with HIV care through access to medical results.

Objective: This study aimed to test the feasibility and acceptability of receiving HIV viral load (VL) results through the app and compare the time to HIV VL result return for study participants before and after app use.

Methods: Using convenience sampling, adults having routine VL phlebotomy were recruited from 2 Johannesburg health facilities. After signed consent, the app was downloaded on their Android smartphones, phlebotomy was performed, and the sample barcode was scanned through their phone to link the sample and app. Participants received a notification of the result availability and logged into the app to view results, their explanation and recommended action.

Results: Overall, 750 people were screened to enroll 500 participants. Of 750, 113 (15.1%) failed eligibility screening. 21.5% (137/637) had smartphone technical limitations preventing enrollment. Results were released to 92.2% (461/500) of participants' phones. App technical issues and laboratory operational issues limited the number of released results. Approximately 78.1% (360/461) results were viewed in the app. Median time from notification of availability to result viewed being 15.5 hours (0.6; range 0-150 days). Turnaround time from phlebotomy to the result being received was 6 (range 1-167) days for users versus 56 days (range 10-430 days; P<.001) before app use. Overall, 4% (20/500) of participants received unsuppressed results (VL>1000 copies/mL). Turnaround time for unsuppressed results was 7 days for participants versus 37.5 days before app use (P<.001). The difference before and after app use in the suppressed and unsuppressed users for time from sample collection to result delivery was statistically significant. Of 20 participants, 12 (60%) returned for a confirmatory VL during the study period. The time from an unsuppressed VL to a confirmatory VL was 106 days for app users versus 203 days before app use (P<.001). Overall, 52.4% (262/500) of participants completed an exit survey; 23.2% (58/250) reported challenges in viewing their VL results. Moreover, 58% (35/60) reported that they overcame challenges with technical assistance from others, and 97.3% (255/262) wanted to continue using the app for VL results.

Conclusions: Using iThemba Life for VL results was well-received despite limited smartphone access for some participants. App users received results 10 times sooner than before the app and 5 times sooner if their VL >1000 copies/mL. This increased notification speed led to participants wanting to continue using iThemba Life.

Keywords: HIV; South Africa; digital health; disease management; mHealth; mobile phone; patient-centric; virological suppression.