Open Access Research article

Physician experience and rates of plasma HIV-1 RNA suppression among illicit drug users: an observational study

Sassan Sangsari1, M-J Milloy23, Amir Ibrahim4, Thomas Kerr23, Ruth Zhang2, Julio Montaner23 and Evan Wood23*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Integrated Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

2 British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, St. Paul's Hospital, 608-1081 Burrard Street, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6Z 1Y6

3 School of population and public health, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

4 Department of Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

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BMC Infectious Diseases 2012, 12:22  doi:10.1186/1471-2334-12-22

Published: 25 January 2012



Despite the availability of antiretroviral therapy (ART), suboptimal treatment outcomes have been observed among HIV-seropositive illicit drug users. As there is an urgent need to improve responses to antiretroviral therapy among this population, we undertook this study to evaluate the role of physician experience on rates of plasma HIV-1 RNA suppression following initiation of ART.


Using data from a community-recruited cohort of HIV-positive illicit drug users, we used Cox proportional hazards regression to model the time to plasma viral HIV RNA < 500 copies/mL among antiretroviral-naïve subjects initiating ART. Physician experience was defined as a continuous variable measured per 100 HIV-infected patients previously enrolled in the province-wide HIV treatment registry by that physician at the time a patient was enrolled.


Between May 1996 and December 2008, 267 individuals initiated ART among whom 227 (85%) achieved a plasma HIV RNA < 500 copies/mL during the study period. In a multivariate analysis, greater physician experience was independently associated with higher rates of plasma HIV RNA suppression (adjusted hazard ratio [AHR] = 1.17, 95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.03-1.34) after adjustment for adherence to ART. Other factors associated with viral suppression included engagement in methadone maintenance therapy (AHR = 1.61, 95% CI: 1.23-2.09), ≥ 95% adherence to ART (AHR = 2.42, 95% CI: 1.80-3.26), baseline CD4 count (AHR = 0.89, 95% CI: 0.83-0.96) and baseline plasma HIV-1 RNA (AHR = 0.65, 95% CI: 0.53-0.81).


In this setting of universal HIV/AIDS care, illicit drug users with more experienced physicians exhibited faster rates of plasma viral load suppression. These findings argue for specialized services to help optimize HIV treatment outcomes among this population.