Impact of SMS and peer navigation on retention in HIV care among adults in South Africa: results of a three-arm cluster randomized controlled trial

Wayne T. Steward*, Emily Agnew, Julia de Kadt, Mary Jane Ratlhagana, Jeri Sumitani, Hailey J. Gilmore, Jessica Grignon, Starley B. Shade, John Tumbo, Scott Barnhart, Sheri A. Lippman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


Introduction: Few interventions have demonstrated improved retention in care for people living with HIV (PLHIV) in sub-Saharan Africa. We tested the efficacy of two personal support interventions – one using text messaging (SMS-only) and the second pairing SMS with peer navigation (SMS+PN) – to improve HIV care retention over one year. Methods: In a cluster randomized control trial (NCT# 02417233) in North West Province, South Africa, we randomized 17 government clinics to three conditions: SMS-only (6), SMS+PN (7) or standard of care (SOC; 4). Participants at SMS-only clinics received appointment reminders, biweekly healthy living messages and twice monthly SMS check-ins. Participants at SMS+PN clinics received SMS appointment reminders and healthy living messages and spoke at least twice monthly with peer navigators (PLHIV receiving care) to address barriers to care. Outcomes were collected through biweekly clinical record extraction and surveys at baseline, six and 12 months. Retention in HIV care over one year was defined as clinic visits every three months for participants on antiretroviral therapy (ART) and CD4 screening every six months for pre-ART participants. We used generalized estimating equations, adjusting for clustering by clinic, to test for differences across conditions. Results: Between October 2014 and April 2015, we enrolled 752 adult clients recently diagnosed with HIV (SOC: 167; SMS-only: 289; SMS+PN: 296). Individuals in the SMS+PN arm had approximately two more clinic visits over a year than those in other arms (p < 0.01) and were more likely to be retained in care over one year than those in SOC clinics (54% vs. 38%; OR: 1.77, CI: 1.02, 3.10). Differences between SMS+PN and SOC conditions remained significant when restricting analyses to the 628 participants on ART (61% vs. 45% retained; OR: 1.78, CI: 1.08, 2.93). The SMS-only intervention did not improve retention relative to SOC (40% vs. 38%, OR: 1.12, CI: 0.63, 1.98). Conclusions: A combination of SMS appointment reminders with personalized, peer-delivered support proved effective at enhancing retention in HIV care over one year. While some clients may only require appointment reminders, the SMS+PN approach offers increased flexibility and tailored, one-on-one support for patients struggling with more substantive challenges.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere25774
JournalJournal of the International AIDS Society
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021


  • South Africa
  • peer navigation
  • retention in care
  • text messaging


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