How to admit a patient with HIV

HIV infection has changed dramatically over the last few decades. When we admit patients with HIV to the hospital, the way to approach them can vary widely depending on their immune status and how well their virus is controlled.

In this post, I present a series of steps that you should think about when admitting a patient with HIV to the hospital.

1. ADDRESS privacy concern

Even in 2019, there is significant stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV and those people who live with HIV (PLWH)1. Thus, it’s very important that their HIV status is not disclosed to others without the patient’s permission.

If there are other non-healthcare personnel in the room with the patient (i.e. family members, friends, other patients within hearing distance), do not mention their HIV status until confirmed by patient that it is permissible to discuss it in front of the other individuals.

Options for opening the discussion:

A) “Is it okay if I discuss all your medical conditions in front of these individuals or would you rather talk in private”?

B) Ask everyone else to leave – this will allow you to ask about HIV as well as other potentially sensitive subjects such as sexual history and domestic violence.

C) Proceed with the H&P and ask the patient about their medical history – observe whether they mention HIV or not. If they do not, then do not mention it and come back at a later time to speak to them privately or ask the guests to leave the room for the exam and ask about HIV at that time.

D) If the patient is sharing the room with another patient, then I usually ask about their “viral infection”. Almost all PLWH will know what you are referring to. Then I wait to see if the patient mentions the word “HIV” or “AIDS” themselves – if they do, then I take that as a signal that it is permissible to talk about it openly (in that particular setting only) and if they do not, then I proceed with as much information as I can elicit without using the word “HIV” or making it obvious that I am discussing “HIV”.

2. ASSESS the immune status

The immune status is determined by their CD4+ count/percentage. However, usually you don’t know their current CD4+ count at the time of admission. What to do?

a) If they have been to your hospital/system before, check their chart for prior CD4+ counts. That should give you a general idea of their immune status.
–if patient is taking antiretroviral therapy (ART), current CD4+ is likely the same or improved
–if patient stopped/not taking ART, current CD4+ is likely the same or worsened

b) Ask the patient! Most of the patients know their CD4+ counts or at least know if its low or high

c) Call the patient’s HIV provider

d) Rough estimate2:
-Absolute lymphocyte count >2000cells/mm3 –> CD4+ cells >200cells/mm3
-Absolute lymphocyte count <1000cells/mm3 –> CD4+ cells <200cells/mm3

*Also, please keep in mind that CD4+ counts are affected by changes in total white blood cell counts, so in an acute illness, the CD4+ percentage (which is not affected by the WBC count) is a more stable marker of immune status. Generally, a CD4+ count obtained during a routine office visit will be more accurate of their immune status than one obtained during a hospital admission.3

3. DEVELOP differential for their concern/symptoms based on immune status

A. If CD4+ >500cells/mm3, then their immune system is intact and there is low likelihood of opportunistic infections.

B. If CD4+ 200-500cells/mm3, then their immune system remains compromised and still susceptible to infections. Also, there is potential that since the last CD4+ count, they have stopped taking their medications and could now be below 200cells/mm3. Consider opportunistic infections, but should be lower on the differential.  

C. If CD4+ <200cells/mm3, opportunistic infections NEED to be on your differential. Treat the patient as an immunocompromised individual and tailor empiric therapy as appropriate.4,5,6

*However, common things being common — a patient with HIV is still at risk for other non-opportunistic infections such as bacterial pneumonia and hospital-acquired infections.

Created by David Serota (@serotavirus)

4. FIND OUT if they are currently taking ART and which ones?

A.If they are not taking ART, then do not start ART on admission until discussed with an HIV provider

B.If patient has ART prescribed but has not been taking them, do not restart the medications on admission until discussed with the patient’s HIV provider. Starts and stops in the medications can promote viral resistance to the drugs.

C.If patient is on ART, continue the ART (unless clear obvious reason not to, i.e. allergy). Find out from patient, family member (who is aware of status), HIV provider/PCP, pharmacy, or medical record what treatment they are on – often patients will be on a combination pill that may not be available in your hospital. In these cases, look up the individual medications in the combination pill and prescribe them all separately.7

5. RUN a drug interaction check when starting ANY new medications

Failure to do this can cause increased metabolism of the HIV medications leading to resistance, or cause increased/decreased metabolism of the other medications leading to inadequate treatment or toxicity. Use this website to check for drug-drug interactions.

6. DETERMINE most recent HIV viral load

–if patient has been on ART regularly, then viral load will likely be undetectable
–if patient has not been on ART regularly, then viral load will likely be detectable 

7. TAKE a sexual history

– assess risk for other STDs
– assess risk for HIV transmission to sexual partners
– educate on U=U and PrEP

8. ASK them about their experience and history of HIV, once you to get to know them.

You will learn a lot that medical books will never be able to teach you.

Was this helpful? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments!

1. Turan B, Budhwani H, Fazeli PL, Browning WR, Raper JL, Mugavero MJ, et al. How Does Stigma Affect People Living with HIV? The Mediating Roles of Internalized and Anticipated HIV Stigma in the Effects of Perceived Community Stigma on Health and Psychosocial Outcomes. AIDS Beh. 2017; 21(1):283-291. 10.1007/s10461-016-1451-5.
2. Shapiro NI, Karras DJ, Leech SH, and Heilpern KL. Absolute lymphocyte count as a predictor of CD4 count. Ann Emerg Med. 1998; 32(3 Pt 1):323-328. 10.1016/s0196-0644(98)70008-3
3.Feeney C, Bryzman S, Kong L, Brazil H, Deutsch R, and Fritz LC. T-lymphocyte subsets in acute illness. Crit Care Med. 1995; 23(10):1680-1685. 10.1097/00003246-199510000-00012
4. Taylor JM, Sy JP, Visccher B, and Giorgi JV. CD4+ T-cell number at the time of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Am J Epidemiol. 1995; 141(7): 645-651. 10.1093/oxfordjournals.aje.a117480
5. Hanson DL, Chu SY, Farizo KM, and Ward JW. Distribution of CD4+ T lymphocytes at diagnosis of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome-defining and other human immunodeficiency virus-related illnesses. The Adult and Adolescent Spectrum of HIV Disease Project Group. Arch Intern Med. 1995; 155(14):1537-1542.
6. Mocroft A, Furrer HJ, Miro JM, Reiss P, Mussini C, Kirk O, et al. The incidence of AIDS-defining illnesses at a current CD4 count ≥ 200 cells/μL in the post-combination antiretroviral therapy era. Clin Infect Dis. 2013; 57(7):1038-1047. 10.1093/cid/cit423
7. Management of the Treatment-Experienced Patient. AIDSInfo. Guidelines for the Use of Antiretroviral Agents in Adults and Adolescents with HIV. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Site updated August 29, 2019. Retrieved August 29, 2019. 10.1097/00003246-199510000-00012

2 thoughts on “How to admit a patient with HIV

  1. Hi Milana! Great stuff as always! We often run into the non-formulary/non-availability issue for some of the ART regimen. I have been taught to hold all ART in that scenario until we can get their full regimen as continuing only partially can lead to resistance. Am I doing it right? Any other strategies if more rural hospital pharmacies can’t get their meds quickly?


    1. Yes, you are correct. If the whole regimen is not available for the patient, NEVER give a partial regimen. That will definitely increase the risk of resistance. Ideally, medications should not be stopped, but if it is only for a few days, it should be ok.
      Another option if the hospital does not have the medications is to allow the patient to bring/take their own medications while in the hospital to prevent the break in therapy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s