HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention have come a long way. But in many areas, there's more significant work to be done. An HIV/AIDS nurse is on the frontlines, helping patients manage their disease and find support. You'll need to be an empathetic prevention advocate with top crisis-management skills to excel in this role.
When HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) first appeared in the US in 1981, there was no effective treatment for the virus. Patient care at the time was limited to treating the diseases and infections to which AIDS patients were vulnerable, followed, inevitably, by palliative and hospice care. The number of AIDS deaths in the US rose annually from about 13,000 in 1987 to nearly 42,000 in 1995.
In the mid-1990s, however, medicine developed effective treatment regimens, and the death toll began to drop: to 31,000 in 1996, then to approximately 20,000 in 1997. HIV no longer automatically meant AIDS, and people could realistically discuss the possibility of “living with HIV.” Today—with proper treatment—a 20-year-old who is HIV-positive can expect to live another 54.9 years.
Proper treatment is key. HIV-positive patients need to maintain a strict treatment regimen to prevent the virus from advancing to AIDS. If you want to become an HIV/AIDS nurse, your role will focus on supporting this patient population, more than half of whom are age 50 and older. As an HIV/AIDS nurse, you will help your patients deal with their condition, the side effects of their prescriptions, and the aging process.
In the guide ahead we’ll explore:
How is the role of an HIV/AIDS caregiver different than other nurses? These professionals:
HIV outreach nurse Lesa Dumsha shared a typical day in the life of an HIV outreach nurse on the Vancouver Coastal Health website. She says her work involves:
“The main goal of our role is to empower our clients,” Lesa explains. “New referrals… are at their most vulnerable, often experiencing a sense of despair… We try to instill hope and motivation for positive change.”
HIV/AIDS nursing requires keeping up with your continuing education as the science related to HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment expands. As such, this role is best suited for those who:
HIV/AIDs nurses work around the world, from large clinics in cities to small, rural settings, according to the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care. A disproportionate number of new HIV cases occur in the southern United States (50 percent of new infections, even though the region represents only 37 percent of the country’s population). Many new HIV/AIDS nursing jobs are in places like New Orleans, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Baton Rouge.
You will likely work in settings that include:
Additional employers may include primary care providers, acute care facilities, community groups, and schools.
While most who go to nursing school will not specialize in HIV care, many will encounter HIV/AIDs patients throughout their careers. You can, however, pursue special certification after you complete your RN degree requirements.
At a minimum it could take two years—if you earn a two-year associate’s degree. On the higher end, the educational requirements could take six years, if you opt for a bachelor’s and master’s in nursing. To become certified, you’ll need another two to three years of experience, so all told it could take up to nine years to become a certified HIV/AIDS nurse.
While becoming a certified HIV/AIDS nurse is voluntary, certification is highly valued and demonstrates HIV/AIDS nursing knowledge, according to the HIV/AIDS Nursing Certification Board (HANCB). For those who want to obtain one or both HIV/AIDS nursing certifications—HIV/AIDS Certified Registered Nurse (ACRN) Certification and Advanced HIV/AIDS Certification Registered Nurse (AACRN) Certification—you will need to first become a registered nurse.
After finishing your two-year or four-year nursing degree, you can become licensed as an RN—a requirement for RNs in all 50 states, D.C., and U.S. territories—which involves:
The final steps for general RN licensure may also include passing a criminal background check or meeting other state-specific criteria.
Beyond obtaining your RN license, you can become certified in your area of specialty. The HIV/AIDS Nursing Certification Board (HANCB) is a nonprofit professional organization that offers two types of HIV/AIDS nursing certifications indicating competence in the field:
To qualify for either certification, you must be an RN with a prescribed amount of professional experience (different for each certification), and you must pass an exam. The HANCB also recommends experience in research. Certified nurses report increased personal and job satisfaction while improving their ability to collaborate and produce better patient and organizational outcomes, according to the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care.
There’s no reason to wait until graduating from high school to start exploring a career in nursing. Some healthcare facilities may allow you to volunteer, so you can gain experience in a clinical setting and see what daily life for patients and employees is like.
After high school, your next step is to complete a two-year associate’s degree in nursing or a four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing. Both degrees qualify you to take the NCLEX-RN exam and earn your RN certification. The latter may be the better option if you plan on pursuing a master’s degree.
The minimum educational requirement to become an RN is a two-year Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). Completing additional education, such as a four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing and a two-year Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), is not a requirement for the ACRN certification. Earning a master’s degree or higher in nursing or completing a postgraduate program in nursing is a requirement for the AACRN certification, however. If your long-term goal is to become certified as an AACRN, you should plan on obtaining your bachelor’s and master’s in nursing.
Seek out nursing schools that offer an HIV/AIDs specialty. Some options include:
Online nursing programs are available for associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s level nursing degrees. Be especially cautious at the associate’s level; some online programs charge significantly more than your local community college charges, and the community college degree will likely serve you better where you live. Already have your associate’s degree and want to complete a four-year degree program? Consider RN to BSN programs to save time and money.
While the ACRN Certification does not require fieldwork, it does require two years of experience as an RN. The AACRN Certification, however, requires three years of experience as an RN and 2,000 hours of HIV/AIDS nursing within five years of applying.
Whether you’ve just started to plan your nursing career or you’re an RN looking to specialize in HIV/AIDS care, your personality traits and/or skill set should include the following qualities:
A career as an HIV/AIDS nurse demands a passion for treatment and care, along with a strong sense of wellness advocacy that goes beyond just the patients you treat. While some reports suggest the AIDS epidemic may be in the past—particularly in cities—there is still a demand for health professionals in many populations that need preventative education and critical care treatment.
If you’re passionate about preventing infection and want to advocate for patients and general awareness of HIV/AIDS, becoming an HIV/AIDS nurse may be a career fit for you.
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