The purpose of this study was to assess the knowledge and attitudes of pre-clinical medical students towards HIV/AIDS. To our knowledge, this study is novel as no previous study has been performed in Israel that includes a nationwide analysis of pre-clinical medical students’ knowledge and attitudes toward HIV/AIDS.
When observing the different sources of HIV information selected by the students, the popular media (such as newspapers, TV and radio) was the most popular choice. This data is in accordance with data shown in previous studies conducted both in Israel and other countries[2, 6–10]. Several of these studies encompass the general population and not representatives of the medical professions, including in the study by Feldman and colleagues of a national sample of young Israeli men and women. One can conclude that pre-clinical medical students gain HIV/AIDS information from the same sources as the general public in Israel. This finding is not surprising since the popular media has always played a prominent role in creating awareness of various health matters, including HIV.
Many of the students who cited other sources of information reported the Internet as one. It is reasonable to assume that if ‘the Internet’ had been given as an option for a possible source of HIV/AIDS information, it would have been a popular source of information among the medical students given its popularity and availability to the public.
Students’ exposure to HIV/AIDS information increased from first year to third year. This correlates with the notion that as students progress through medical school they are exposed to more medical information, including information on the subject of HIV/AIDS.
The incidence of new HIV/AIDS infections in Israel in 2011 was 58 new cases per million, a lower incidence than in most western European and North American countries. HIV in Israel is influenced mainly by immigration from countries with generalised HIV epidemics such as African countries and the former USSR. During the period between 1981 and 2011, there was an increase in the number of new HIV/AIDS reported cases via MSM transmission, making it the most common cause for contracting HIV/AIDS in Israel (not including PLWHA originating from countries with a generalised HIV epidemic).
The majority of medical students who participated in this study selected IDU as the most common cause of HIV/AIDS transmission in Israel, followed by heterosexual relations and MSM. The view of IDUs as the leading cause of HIV/AIDS in Israel was unchanged when comparing among the three medical years. These findings are not surprising when considering the well-known stigma towards IDUs and the linkage between IDU and HIV/AIDS, as demonstrated by various studies[13–20]. Sayles and colleagues used focus groups to explore experiences and perceptions of stigma in a diverse group of women and men living with HIV. Findings showed that PLWHA are seen as ‘contaminated’ and linked to the stereotypes of promiscuity, drug use and homosexuality.
In a study among Thai nursing students performed by Chan and colleagues, IDU was found to be the most stigmatizing co-characteristic of HIV/AIDS. They hypothesised that the moral failings represented by HIV/AIDS could be derived from the moral failings represented by IDU. An intrinsic association between IDU and HIV as cause and effect in the minds of medical students might explain our findings. In addition, one might also conclude from our findings that there is a lack of knowledge among medical students regarding the epidemiology of HIV infection in Israel.
The overall knowledge of HIV transmission and non-transmission routes was high among students. However, there were several misconceptions, the most prominent being with regard to transmission via breastfeeding, with only 36.6% knowing that breastfeeding was one of the routes of HIV transmission. Furthermore, this knowledge had not improved throughout the three pre-clinical years. Knowledge of breastfeeding as a transmission route for HIV was even lower in a study among first-year nursing students in Turkey, 12.5%, with knowledge improving to 43.2% after an HIV education program. In a study among Korean dentists, only 28% knew breast milk is a transmission route for HIV. Knowledge was less than expected from medical students regarding the non-transmission routes via saliva and mosquito bites, 75.2% and 72.8% respectively. In a study among first year medical students in the city of Madras in India, 86.8% of students knew HIV cannot spread by mosquitoes. Similar results were also demonstrated in a study by Najem and Okuzu among first- and second-year medical students and in a study among fourth-year medical students at Zagreb University. In a study by Chemtob and colleagues among Israeli adults, 34% of participants thought mosquitoes could spread HIV, and 29% thought HIV can be spread via saliva.
There were considerable lacunae in the students’ basic knowledge of HIV treatment and prevention methods in all but one of the four items, with almost all participants knowing HIV treatment can prolong the life expectancy of PLWHA. However, knowledge regarding prevention of HIV infection was insufficient. Although findings demonstrated a statistically significant improvement in knowledge of HIV prevention, one would expect knowledge of third-year students to reach close to 100%, a fact not demonstrated in this study. This is concerning since fourth-year medical students in Israel start their clinical rotations during which they are exposed to patients.
One can assume that the fact that overall there is improvement in knowledge throughout the pre-clinical years may also imply that the improvement in knowledge continues during the clinical years. Turhan et al. compared the HIV knowledge of first-year students to final-year students from faculties of medicine, dentistry and medical technology vocational training school. Final-year students were indeed found to have higher levels of knowledge when compared to first-year students. In a study by Chew and Cheong at a public university in Malaysia, knowledge scores were significantly higher for clinical compared to pre-clinical medical students.
However, when medical students come into contact with patients, they must already be fully aware of the universal precautions, of proper prevention methods such as post-exposure prophylaxis, and of hospital safety protocols. This important information should be provided to medical students early in their pre-clinical studies and repeated later in order to consolidate the data in the students’ minds. Thus, all students beginning their first clinical year will be well versed in these areas. In addition, misperceptions may result in an adverse impact on medical students’ willingness to be in close contact with PLWHA, thus interfering with the quality of medical care these patients receive. Najem and Okuzu concluded that misperceptions may result in an adverse impact on the willingness of students to have close contact with PLWHA, which in turn may interfere with high-quality medical care for PLWHA.
Findings revealed a universal desire among students to gain further HIV/AIDS knowledge, unchanged through the pre-clinical years. In addition, most of the participants felt their current level of professional education was not sufficient to work safely with PLWHA, a feeling unchanged during the pre-clinical years. In a study among final-year medical and pharmacy students, Ahmed and colleagues found most students showed fear of incompetence in the treatment, care or even counselling of patients. Students had doubts about the level of competence of their educational training in safely dealing with PLWHA. These findings are similar to those found in studies among medical students in other countries[2–4, 27].
Findings demonstrated that the majority of students have positive attitudes towards PLWHA. However, the presence of stigmatizing attitudes towards PLWHA that were demonstrated in this study cannot be ignored. Close to half of the students believed there should be routine screening of immigrants for HIV. Nearly 18% agreed that PLWHA should be prohibited from having sexual relations. Furthermore, almost a quarter of students believed they had a right to refuse to treat PLWHA. Similarly, a study among second-year medical students found one-third of students believed they had this right. More than a fifth of Israeli students thought doctors had the right to refuse to treat PLWHA, the same outcome as in studies among medical students in England and Croatia[4, 5].
These results are alarming, since they show an undeniable presence of prejudice among the medical student population. Nearly all stigmatizing attitudes in this study remained unchanged and persisted throughout the pre-clinical years. Bernstein and colleagues surveyed second- and third-year medical and dental students before and after they completed a year of required clinical training. Findings showed that a substantial minority of students did not acknowledge a responsibility to treat all patients, regardless of their HIV status. Furthermore, these attitudes persisted over time and were hardly influenced by the students’ clinical exposure.
The majority of medical students made a strong link between HIV and shame. This concept of HIV as something to be ashamed of can be attributed to the existence of stigmatizing notions towards HIV––the association of HIV with particular groups such as IDUs and CSW, to immoral or promiscuous behaviour[13, 15, 17, 20], and to a fear of the social rejection that might follow a positive HIV diagnosis. For example, a study among medical students in China concluded that the stigma of IDU and CSW was embedded within being HIV-positive. In a study among HIV-positive adults, individuals were seen as ‘contaminated’ and linked to the stereotypes of promiscuity, drug use and homosexuality.
Study findings showed that medical students have high levels of fear towards HIV/AIDS. Nearly 35% of students felt their future occupation as health-care workers was placing them at a high risk of occupational HIV infection. This perception of risk is highly exaggerated as actual risk is quite small when implementing the proper precautions. In actuality, the risk to health-care workers of occupationally acquiring HIV infection after percutaneous exposure to HIV-infected blood is approximately 0.36%[29, 30]. Nevertheless, concerns and fears regarding the risk of acquiring HIV infection occupationally among medical students, physicians and other health-care professionals are well documented in the medical literature[3, 9, 10, 26–28, 31–33].
A study among second-year medical students revealed that more than 60% expressed concern that working with PLWHA might be hazardous. Another study among final-year medical students found that more than 70% showed reservations that working with PLWHA might endanger their health. Fear of occupational HIV transmission was also prevalent in a study among health-care providers––nearly 40% were afraid of acquiring HIV during the course of their work.
There was no change in the levels of fears or emotions regarding HIV/AIDS during the three medical years. It can be concluded that feelings of fear and the accompanying emotions towards HIV/AIDS are not influenced by the improvement in HIV/AIDS-related knowledge. Previous studies have shown the existence of stigmatizing notions and the persistence of fear towards HIV/AIDS among medical students in their pre-clinical and clinical years as well, and among those currently working in the medical professions, i.e., doctors, nurses and dentists[22, 24, 28, 33–38]. Evidence of stigmatization against a patient population by those in the medical profession cannot be ignored, for such attitudes affect the way patients are treated, and can impact the quality of care they receive.
A concerning finding was that students showed a nearly complete lack of awareness regarding issues of HIV protocol in Israel. The majority of students thought all physicians should be tested for HIV. Similar results were shown in a study by Mohsin, Nayak and Mandaviya among first- and second-year medical students and in a study by Ahmed, Hassali, Bukhari and Sulaiman among final-year medical and pharmacy students. In actuality, the Israeli Health Department’s protocols regarding health-care workers and HIV states that there is no justification for performing HIV screening for all health-care workers, and that health-care workers cannot be obligated to be HIV tested.
Findings demonstrated that more than 40% of students felt all patients admitted to the hospital should be tested for HIV with similar trends demonstrated in studies among medical students, pharmacology students and nurses[3, 25, 26, 40]. In one study, approximately 90% of medical students stated that all patients admitted to the hospital should be HIV tested. In reality, there is no medical necessity to perform routine HIV screening for all patients admitted to hospital for it does not reduce the risk of occupational exposure. Furthermore, routine HIV testing is not a valid economic alternative to universal precautions.
More than three quarters of medical students believed they had the right to inform the sexual partner of an HIV-positive patient against that patient’s wishes. An even larger percentage of students thought they had a right to disclose this information to other medical staff. Mohsin and colleagues found that 77% of first- and second-year medical students would inform the spouse of PLWHA, even if forbidden to do so by the patient. In another study, more than 50% of medical students stated they would warn other medical staff about a patient with HIV, even if the patient disagreed. This belief is contradictory to Israeli law regarding medical confidentiality (The Patients’ Rights Law, 1996), which states that physicians and other health-care workers have to keep all patient information confidential. They can only give this information to another party if the patient consents or if an ethics committee approves. The same law states that health-care workers can provide confidential medical information to medical colleagues only when these colleagues are scheduled to render medical treatment to the patient.
Knowledge regarding patient confidentiality and HIV/AIDS health protocols in Israel is highly important for all those who work in the medical system. It is crucial that this information be taught and discussed at length throughout medical school so that students, whether starting their clinical studies or beginning their work as interns and residents, are well prepared, and know their rights and their duties.
One known limitation of a self-administered questionnaire is that respondents may provide the answers they believe to be the most suitable and desirable by the researchers, and not necessarily coming from their own conviction. During the distribution of the questionnaires to participants, the researcher attempted to minimise this limitation by declining to answer questions or respond to enquiries regarding the different questionnaire items.