New Bangkok Clinic fights HIV stigma by offering anonymous tests (Interview)

For over a decade now, Pongsakorn Surapuchong has been a volunteer dermatologist at the Thai Red Cross Anonymous Clinic. It didn’t take long for him to notice how HIV/AIDS patients were being left out of the loop.

“Patients who get tested for AIDS and HIV usually share one concern: They want their personal information to be as private as possible,” Pongsakorn said. “But most clinics may not be able to fulfill their wishes.”

Since then, Pongsakorn has dedicated his medical expertise to raising awareness of sexually transmitted diseases to help remove stigma. Earlier this year, he opened his first clinic, the PSK Clinic, where patients can go anonymously for advice and testing — and give away medical records. In the clinic, a An HIV test costs 600 THB.

Pongsakorn wanted his clinic to be a place that provides social support and fights the stigmas associated with HIV regardless of people’s gender identity.

“We need to be more than just a sexual health clinic,” Pongsakorn said. “We assume that everyone will feel free to come to the clinic. We also need to reduce stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and LQBTQ+.”

File photo of Pongsakorn Surapuchong, founder of PSK Clinic in Bangkok’s Chatuchak District.

We sat down with Pongsakorn about his clinic and how he believes it can serve as a model for patients to access treatment more effectively.

Why does your clinic allow patients to take the test without revealing themselves?

We got this idea from the Anonymous Clinic but we want to make it more practical. Patients who test for AIDS and HIV usually share one concern: They want their personal information to be as private as possible. But most clinics may not be able to fulfill their wishes, especially when these clinics are state funded. It is true that clinics like Anonymous Clinic may identify patients by their phone numbers or emails, but if people want a free blood test, the clinic will still need an ID and will record the results.

Many patients are still reluctant to access medical treatment and a diagnosis, because there is a possibility that the outcome – when they are HIV positive – will affect their work and personal life, or even their insurance. Therefore, we believe that abandoning the identification process will make people feel more secure and comfortable enough to take their tests.

Any difficulty as a medical provider?

Since the Anonymous Clinic has been doing something similar for 30 years, I don’t think it’s difficult to provide counseling and testing services in this way. As a medical provider, I believe we should trust our patients, that they are really worried and need our help, that they are asking for our help without a hidden agenda. True, people can find loopholes to exploit that. I’ve heard from the Anonymous Clinic staff that some people are trying to have someone else do blood tests for them. But we can check their identities with their ID cards – just as a precaution because we don’t actually log anything.

Photo: PSK Clinic

Do you think that people have become more comfortable receiving such tests, compared to the past?

Younger people show more confidence and become well acquainted with the disease. Some of them may still be concerned by the old stigma and media representations. But overall, it’s progress.

We should trust our patients, that they are really worried and need our help, and seek our help without any hidden agenda.

What are some common misconceptions people still have about HIV and AIDS in Thailand?

“You will die in 5 to 10 years if you get AIDS,” is something people still believe in, even today. With today’s medical breakthroughs – looking from a global scale – technology has become so advanced that helping people survive disease may not be our priority. Priorities have shifted to how people can live with AIDS as they get older, or how they can deal with patients with heart disease or dementia. People with HIV will not die within 5 to 10 years. They can live to 80 or more. And they will.

What can help break down the old stigma and misconceptions associated with the disease?

There are many things to do – be it from society or from the medical profession. STDs have been highlighted and conversations entered, but the harsh reality remains that even among healthcare professionals, discrimination is still very high. Some still associate the disease with patient neglect. Questions like “Why didn’t you use protection?” or “How did you allow yourself to have it?” Still common.

A patient told me when I was treating him that he was surprised that I didn’t reprimand him like other doctors did. Sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS or HIV are not something people want in the first place. Accidents happen. Even skilled chefs can stand a chance. So can those who have sex. As a medical professional, we must admire their efforts and the sense of responsibility they bring to us. We should treat them like any other patients. Our job is to help them, not judge them – especially when we don’t have a full understanding of how they live their lives or what they’ve been through.

PSK Clinic is located on the 4th floor of the Move Amaze Building on Soi Lat Phrao 19 in Bangkok’s Chatuchak District. It can be accessed via MRT Lat Phrao.

This story originally appeared in BK.

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