The feasibility and acceptability of an mHealth conversational agent designed to support HIV self-testing in South Africa: cross-sectional Study

Xolani Ntinga, Franco Musiello, Alfred Kipyegon Keter, Ruanne Barnabas, Alastair van Heerden

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Abstract

Background: HIV testing rates in sub-Saharan Africa remain below the targeted threshold, and primary care facilities struggle to provide adequate services. Innovative approaches that leverage digital technologies could improve HIV testing and access to treatment.

Objective: This study aimed to examine the feasibility and acceptability of Nolwazi_bot. It is an isiZulu-speaking conversational agent designed to support HIV self-testing (HIVST) in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Methods: Nolwazi_bot was designed with 4 different personalities that users could choose when selecting a counselor for their HIVST session. We recruited a convenience sample of 120 consenting adults and invited them to undertake an HIV self-test facilitated by the Nolwazi_bot. After testing, participants completed an interviewer-led posttest structured survey to assess their experience with the chatbot-supported HIVST.

Results: Participants (N=120) ranged in age from 18 to 47 years, with half of them being men (61/120, 50.8%). Of the 120 participants, 111 (92.5%) had tested with a human counselor more than once. Of the 120 participants, 45 (37.5%) chose to be counseled by the female Nolwazi_bot personality aged between 18 and 25 years. Approximately one-fifth (21/120, 17.5%) of the participants who underwent an HIV self-test guided by the chatbot tested positive. Most participants (95/120, 79.2%) indicated that their HIV testing experience with a chatbot was much better than that with a human counselor. Many participants (93/120, 77.5%) reported that they felt as if they were talking to a real person, stating that the response tone and word choice of Nolwazi_bot reminded them of how they speak in daily conversations.

Conclusions: The study provides insights into the potential of digital technology interventions to support HIVST in low-income and middle-income countries. Although we wait to see the full benefits of mobile health, technological interventions including conversational agents or chatbots provide us with an excellent opportunity to improve HIVST by addressing the barriers associated with clinic-based HIV testing.

Original languageEnglish
Article number39816
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Volume24
Issue number12
Number of pages13
ISSN1438-8871
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2022

Keywords

  • HIV
  • HIV self-testing
  • HIVST
  • chatbot
  • conversational agents
  • mobile health
  • mHealth
  • mobile phone
  • SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

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