A Professor in the Department of Sexology and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Health Education at UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal), Dr. Joanne Otis has long been interested in health promotion. After working as a high school teacher for 10 years, she made the decision to continue her education. “I realized that I needed to go further, so I did a Master’s in public health at the University of Montreal. I was always interested in health behaviours and health promotion, in particular for youth and young adults. This was in the mid-1980s, so at the time there was also a lot of concern about patterns of sexual behaviour among young people and the possibility that we would start to see high rates of HIV infection in this population.” This interest in health issues important to young people led her to explore the determinants of condom use for her PhD. Dr. Otis’ research projects are oriented in significant ways by community perspectives and needs, and this a strength of her approach to research. “When you consistently work in a participatory way, new questions emerge and you are more responsive to community concerns. If we limit ourselves to consulting scientific literature, we won’t be attuned to the point of view of affected groups such as men who have sex with men (MSM) and people living with HIV,” says Dr. Otis. “Meaningful community involvement allows us to do better research.”
Two of Dr. Otis’ CIHR-supported projects involve the provision of community-based services that that have undergone ongoing improvement by obtaining feedback from participants. The first of these, the SPOT project, offers free, anonymous, rapid HIV testing for gay men and the MSM population in Montreal. Anonymous blood samples are also collected for phylogenetic analyses to increase understanding of the dynamics of HIV transmission among MSM in Quebec (overseen by the McGill AIDS Centre). Community workers have been integrated into the testing team at SPOT (the first time this has been done in a Quebec) and provide pre- and post-test counseling in collaboration with a nurse responsible for testing. SPOT also gathers data to guide the development of more effective approaches to counseling and the delivery of testing services. An implementation analysis has been ongoing since 2009 to increase understanding of how to implement long-term, durable, effective services that will optimize HIV testing and prevention for MSM. Dr. Otis oversees SPOT’s psychosocial research activities, developing questionnaires and testing interventions to improve services.
Pouvoir Partager/Pouvoirs Partagés, another of Dr. Otis’ projects, is a second example. This project aims to help HIV-positive women in making decisions regarding whether or not to disclose their HIV status. Established as a partnership that brings together community groups, women living with HIV/AIDS, and university researchers, the project measured participants’ experiences with regards to disclosure of HIV status, offered workshops to increase understanding of the different options for whether or not to disclose, and assessed participants’ satisfaction with the program. Results indicate that the program has generated a sense of empowerment, individually and collectively, among the women who have participated in relation to disclosure of HIV status. Dr. Otis is now working to adapt the program for use in other countries such as Mali. “After spending time with women in Bamako, I could see how this type of project had changed their lives and empowered them.” explains Dr. Otis. “They had a new feeling about their right to be alive and their right to a good quality of life. You could see the confidence in their eyes.” The program can be accessed through an online training module (www.pouvoirpartager.uqam.ca). An English version is being developed and will be available soon.
Working closely with participants in these projects has given Dr. Otis a sense that her work makes a difference in the lives of HIV-positive women and HIV-positive people in general, and has had a positive impact in the gay community and the MSM population. More than anything else, this is what inspires her to do community-based work. “From my perspective, there is no other way to do research.”
The Canadian Association for HIV Research (CAHR), the CIHR HIV/AIDS Research Initiative, the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR), the CIHR Canadian HIV Trials Network (CTN) and the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI) Research and Development Alliance Coordinating Office (ACO) would like to congratulate Dr. Otis for her significant contributions to our understanding of the HIV epidemic. Her work is part of a larger Canadian research effort that is making a difference in the lives of those affected by HIV in Canada and around the world.