eHealth supported multi-months dispensing of antiretroviral therapy: a mixed-methods preference assessment in rural Lesotho

Background Multi-month dispensing (MMD) of antiretroviral therapy (ART) represents one approach of differentiated service delivery (DSD) aiming to improve quality and cost-effectiveness for HIV services in resource-limited settings. However, reduction in clinic visits for people living with HIV (PLWH) should go along with out-of-clinic care tailored to PLWH`s preferences and comorbidities to maintain quality of care. eHealth supported MMD offers a potential solution. Methods Between October 2019 and January 2020 we assessed preferences on an eHealth supported MMD package among adult PLWH attending routine ART care at a rural clinic in Lesotho using a mixed-methods approach. Participants reported their preferences among different refill and eHealth options. They were invited to test automated text messages (SMS) informing about their viral load results, an automated tuberculosis symptoms screening call and telemedical support by an expert nurse. Telemedical service comprised a call-back option if participants required any additional support and adherence counselling for closer follow-up of participants with unsuppressed viral loads. After 6 weeks, participants were followed-up to assess perception of the chosen eHealth support using a qualitative approach. Results Among 112 participants (median age = 43 years; 74% female), 83/112 (75%) preferred MMD for 6–12 months (median = 9 months, IQR = [5, 12]). Neither sex, age, employment, costs and time for travel to clinic, nor the duration of taking ART correlated with the MMD preference. All 17 participants attending routine viral load measurement wished to receive the result via SMS. Fifteen (19.2%) participants requested a telemedical nurse call-back during the study period. All participants with recent unsuppressed viral load (N = 13) requested telemedical adherence counselling for closer follow-up. Among 78 participants followed-up, 76 (97%) would appreciate having the call-back option in future. Seventy-five participants (67%) received and evaluated the automated symptomatic tuberculosis screening call, overall 71 (95%) appreciated it. Conclusions The great majority of PLWH in this study preferred 6–12 months MMD and appreciated the additional eHealth support, including viral load results via SMS, telemedical nurse consultations and automated tuberculosis symptom screening calls. eHealth supported MMD packages appear to be a promising approach for DSD models and should be assessed for clinical endpoints and cost-effectiveness in larger studies.