Care challenges and silver linings in HIV and behavioral health service delivery for individuals living with HIV and severe mental illness during the COVID-19 pandemic: a qualitative study

BMC Health Serv Res. 2024 May 31;24(1):690. doi: 10.1186/s12913-024-11146-1.


Background: There has been a longstanding effort to integrate behavioral health and HIV care for people with comorbid HIV and behavioral health needs, including those with severe mental illness (SMI). As this population frequents both behavioral health and HIV care settings, they were likely to experience new obstacles to the quality and availability of care during the COVID-19 pandemic. This study aims to describe how clinics for HIV services or behavioral healthcare-as well as co-located sites providing both-sought to rapidly shift protocols to maintain a standard of patient care for people with comorbid HIV and SMI while adapting to the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic.

Methods: We interviewed HIV and behavioral healthcare providers, clinic leaders, and support service agencies that served clients impacted by both HIV and SMI. Seventeen key informants across three settings (HIV care settings, behavioral health care settings, and integrated or co-located care settings) were interviewed in 2022. Interviews focused on changes in clinical services, protocols, and care provision strategies during and at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Interviews were transcribed and coded using thematic analysis.

Results: Commonly endorsed themes included both positive and negative changes in care and care provision during the pandemic. Negative impacts of the pandemic included the loss of physical space, exacerbated mental health needs and disengagement in HIV care, patient barriers to telehealth and the digital divide, and increased healthcare workforce burnout. Positive changes included improved healthcare delivery and care engagement through telehealth, new opportunities to provide a wide range of social services, paradoxical increases in engagement in HIV care for certain patients, and broad institution of workforce wellness practices.

Conclusions: Though COVID-19 presented several complex barriers to care for providers serving patients with comorbid HIV and SMI, the increased flexibility afforded by telehealth and a greater focus on collaborative approaches to patient care may benefit this patient population in the future. Additionally, the focus on workforce wellness may serve to increase retention and avoid burnout among providers. The strategies and lessons learned through adapting to COVID-19 may be invaluable moving forward as healthcare systems respond to future pandemics.

Keywords: Behavioral health; COVID-19; HIV; Healthcare delivery; Severe mental illness; Telehealth; Workforce burnout.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • COVID-19* / psychology
  • Comorbidity
  • Female
  • HIV Infections* / epidemiology
  • HIV Infections* / psychology
  • HIV Infections* / therapy
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders* / epidemiology
  • Mental Disorders* / therapy
  • Mental Health Services* / organization & administration
  • Middle Aged
  • Pandemics
  • Qualitative Research*
  • SARS-CoV-2*