Introduction: There is robust evidence that stigma negatively impacts both people living with HIV and those who might benefit from HIV prevention interventions. Within healthcare settings, research on HIV stigma has focused on intra-personal processes (i.e. knowledge or internalization of community-level stigma that might limit clients’ engagement in care) or inter-personal processes (i.e. stigmatized interactions with service providers). Intersectional approaches to stigma call us to examine the ways that intersecting systems of power and oppression produce stigma not only at the individual and interpersonal levels, but also within healthcare service delivery systems. This commentary argues for the importance of analysing and disrupting the way in which stigma may be (intentionally or unintentionally) enacted and sustained within HIV service implementation, that is the policies, protocols and strategies used to deliver HIV prevention and care. We contend that as HIV researchers and practitioners, we have failed to fully specify or examine the mechanisms through which HIV service implementation itself may reinforce stigma and perpetuate inequity.
Discussion: We apply Link and Phelan’s five stigma components (labelling, stereotyping, separation, status loss and discrimination) as a framework for analysing the way in which stigma manifests in existing service implementation and for evaluating new HIV implementation strategies. We present three examples of common HIV service implementation strategies and consider their potential to activate stigma components, with particular attention to how our understanding of these dynamics can be enhanced and expanded by the application of intersectional perspectives. We then provide a set of sample questions that can be used to develop and test novel implementation strategies designed to mitigate against HIV-specific and intersectional stigma.
Conclusions: This commentary is a theory-informed call to action for the assessment of existing HIV service implementation, for the development of new stigma-reducing implementation strategies and for the explicit inclusion of stigma reduction as a core outcome in implementation research and evaluation. We argue that these strategies have the potential to make critical contributions to our ability to address many system-level form stigmas that undermine health and wellbeing for people living with HIV and those in need of HIV prevention services.