Image of Dr. Pai

Dr. Nitika Pant Pai and her team have developed a smartphone app that is improving access to HIV testing and care

A new app developed at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) is taking a more personalized approach to self-testing for HIV. The HIVSmart! app connects individuals with resources to properly administer an HIV self-test and access care if they test positive.

While app users must purchase an HIV self-test themselves, the app provides education, resources and personalized support as they administer the test from home or any private space. Users can contact a health professional through the app at any time during the process. If the test is positive, the app refers them to nearby clinics or hospitals where they can begin to receive counselling and care. HIVSmart! was developed by Dr. Nitika Pant Pai, a clinical epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) and her team.

“The trick with HIV self-testing is that everyone is a little scared about knowing their status while all alone,” says Dr. Pai. “To make it simple, the app walks you through the entire process and helps connect each user to care as per demand.”

To test the new app, Dr. Pai and her team deployed it in South Africa, which has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world. From 2017–2019, the team recruited over 3,000 individuals to test the app. It was a huge success, raising the bar for HIV self-testing using technology.

“Together with our colleague, Prof Keertan Dheeda’s team at the University of Cape Town, we were able to detect many new HIV infections and almost everyone who tested positive was connected to a clinic for care,” says Dr. Pai.

The app was so popular that the people taking part in the study began to refer their friends. Most people who took part were young women, but the researchers noted that they tended to refer young men to the app. This type of peer-to-peer referral—with women at its core—could be a change agent for HIV self-testing, leading more people to learn their HIV status.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the only app-based strategy in the world to have reported success with linkages,” says Dr. Pai. “Many companies are working to develop something like HIVSmart!, but few put their products through rigorous testing and soon the uptake drops.”

Growing up in India, Dr. Pai dreamed of being a doctor as a child. This dream led her to train in India, the United States and Canada. Today, she is an expert in her fields of infectious disease epidemiology, rapid diagnostics and digital health. She is passionate about helping others, and believes that digital solutions in medicine—like the HIVSmart! App—are the future of testing and monitoring for infectious diseases.

“Most medical conditions—HIV, Hepatitis C, diabetes, hypertension—require continuous testing, monitoring and tracking. Physicians don’t have the time to do that, so digital tracking and monitoring through apps gives us the latitude and flexibility to personalize care for them,” says Dr. Pai.

Dr. Pai’s study of HIVSmart! proved its effectiveness, and her team is now planning to make the app available around the world. The team recently received a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to expand the reach of the app-based program in Canada.

Development and testing of the HIVSmart! app was funded by Grand Challenges Canada, Ministry of Health South Africa, Medical Research Council South Africa, and the generosity of donors to Priority Needs at the MUHC Foundation. Gifts to Priority Needs help the Foundation provide funding for innovative new ideas and urgent needs in patient care. No matter the size of your gift, you can make a difference to health care in Montreal and beyond.